US lawmakers gave themselves a New Year’s resolution of sorts late Tuesday, but it was nearly a lump of coal: a “fiscal cliff” bill that few like, and which highlights the dysfunction gripping Washington.
Lawmakers’ inability to meet their own self-imposed year-end deadline or address the crucial element of the so-called fiscal cliff, billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts set to hit in 2013, is also promising an epic showdown on the financial problems that lay ahead.
Even as the US House voted 257-167 to pass a Senate bill permanently extending tax rates for some 100 million families, Republicans were up at arms because it hikes taxes, at least on the rich, for the first time in a generation and postpones deep federal spending cuts for two months.
While the legislation secured billions in stimulus spending like unemployment insurance, many Democrats were livid because the tax hike threshold was agreed at $450,000 of income, not $250,000.
Uniting each side in their anger was the prospect of a renewed fiscal fight just two months from now when automatic spending cuts known as “sequester” kick in, the nation reaches its federal borrowing limit, and everyone braces for a government budget battle.
Seniors in both parties spoke warmly of how lawmakers are able to overcome differences and do something for the good of the country, even if at the last minute.
But seething resentment was the undercurrent in the House.
“This is no profile in courage,” winced veteran Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel on the House floor.
His Democratic colleague Louise Slaughter agreed.
“It sets the nation up for another fiscal showdown in mere months,” she said.
“This toxic combination of extremism and hyper-partisanship has resulted in the 112th Congress being the least productive in history.”
The watered down legislation — both sides initially sought a multi-trillion-dollar grand bargain — and teeth-pulling negotiations that were required to bring it about, left lawmakers bidding good riddance to the 112th Congress and hoping the 113th, which begins Thursday, will be more productive.
“It’s a disappointing end to a disappointing two years for many in my freshman class,” Republican Tim Huelskamp told AFP, expressing the hope that his colleagues will show more backbone next time they are called upon to hold the line on taxes.
First-term Republicans like Huelskamp “came in to change things and the last vote we’re apparently going to take is a deal that the president of the United States really liked.”
Republicans felt quite the opposite, he said. Nevertheless, 85 of them held their noses and voted for it.
Even the Republican leadership failed to put up a united front for the important vote.
House Speaker John Boehner, who led two caucus meetings to discuss the measure, ultimately backed it but his deputy Eric Cantor did not.
The caucuses held in the Capitol basement Tuesday were no picnic. Most Republicans emerged furious at having to swallow a bill that raised taxes on the wealthy and offered no spending cuts. Some even ranted about the “sleep-deprived octogenarians” in the Senate who passed the bill overnight.
But one of the testiest moments in the high-stakes negotiations over the fiscal cliff deal came at the White House, when Boehner confronted top Senate Democrat Harry Reid with extraordinary language.
“Go f— yourself,” Boehner told Reid, according to Politico, citing multiple people present at the encounter just steps from the Oval Office.
Boehner had been the go-to Republican negotiator with President Barack Obama, but he punted his role to the Senate, where Reid accused Boehner of running a “dictatorship” in the House.
As if to highlight the dysfunction, House Republican leaders ended the session without announcing a vote on a key Senate-passed $60 billion relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims.
If the next Congress begins with no Sandy bill passed in the House, lawmakers will need to start from scratch.
“The leadership just walked away,” Rangel fumed.