Congress Pulls Itself Back From Over Fiscal Cliff

In the end Congress did take the country over the fiscal cliff — but the fall was brief, and despite demonstrating unfathomable dysfunction, the House of Representatives, and its GOP leadership, managed to grab hold of a bough and heave itself back up.

At least temporarily.

Less than 24 hours after the Bush tax cuts officially expired, and a day before deep domestic and defense spending cuts were scheduled to take effect, the House adopted Senate-passed legislation extending the Bush tax cuts for income up to $450,000 and staving off the sequester’s painful austerity measures.

The final vote was 257-167. The bill passed thanks to an overwhelming display of Democratic support — 172 Dems voted for the bill, while only 16 opposed. By contrast, only 85 Republicans voted in support of the bill, compared to the 151 — including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) — who voted against.This was not an easily foretold outcome. Though the legislation was the product of White House negotiations with the Senate’s top Republican, and though it passed the upper chamber overwhelmingly in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, House Republicans nearly submarined the bill and sent the country down an uncertain road toward economic contraction.

The cracks within the House GOP conference climbed all the way up to the top of the leadership team. Though Republican members were broadly resigned to losing the battle to keep tax rates at Bush-era levels, many could not stomach voting for the measure, even though the rates had already reverted to Clinton-era highs.

They wanted cuts to federal spending. And, with a wink from Cantor, they were nearly prepared to sink the bill directly, or return it to the Senate amended and guarantee its demise.

In the end, a self-preservation instinct took over. Leaders suffocated the rebellion, and decided to place the bill on the floor unchanged, at the risk of alienating the majority of rank-and-file Republicans.

In the end well over half the conference voted against the bill — a rare violation of the so-called Hastert Rule, under which Republican leaders deny floor votes to legislation that lacks the support of a majority of party members.

But Republicans are vowing to channel their anger and disappointment into a new round of brinksmanship near the edge of a new cliff. The bill that passed the House Tuesday night pays down the sequester for only two months. By no coincidence, that’s right around the time when the country’s borrowing authority is expected to be exceeded and the debt ceiling will have to be lifted. A month later, funding for the federal government will also lapse.

Republicans insist they’ll be better positioned to exploit that much steeper and more dangerous cliff to force the White House to swallow deep cuts to federal safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

The White House insists it will not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit. But even if the President sticks to his guns, and even if the debt limit issue gets set aside, there’s still the sequester, and still a very real chance that Republicans will gore a Democratic sacred cow early this year, months after a decisive Democratic victory in November.

Between those cuts and the expiration of the payroll tax holiday, it also means the country might be in for more austerity than economists consider wise for a weak economy — just as economic indicators are pointing toward an accelerating economic recovery.