Vice President Joe Biden arrives for a closed meeting with Senate Democrats… (Drew Angerer, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Hours before a midnight deadline on Monday, the White House reached a tentative deal with Congress to stop an enormous tax hike for all but the wealthiest households and to postpone for two months tough decisions on how to cut federal spending.
After a rare holiday session that lasted through the New Year's Eve celebration and two hours into New Year's Day, the Senate voted, 89 to 8, to approve the proposal. Republican leaders in the House had balked at holding a vote in the dark of night, but are expected to bring the bill up later Tuesday.
The House, where GOP lawmakers have been resistant to voting for a tax increase, will now determine whether the nation's plunge off the fiscal cliff is halted. As long as Congress is seen to be working toward a solution, no dire economic fallout is expected from the delay.
The deal would represent a milestone for Republicans, whose anti-tax stance has defined the party since then-President George H.W. Bush in 1990 broke his promise not to raise taxes. Republicans have not supported an effort to increase income taxes since then.
It also would be a concession for Democrats who backed away from President Obama's popular campaign pledge that he would ask households earning more than $250,000 to pay more in taxes. Under the deal with Republicans, taxes will increase only on households earning more than $450,000.
The deep automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin Wednesday — the other part of the "fiscal cliff" — would be pushed back just long enough to ensure that the partisan budget battles marking Obama's first term will also punctuate the beginning of his second. Negotiations over the cuts were expected to be rolled into talks about extending the nation's debt ceiling, a prospect Democrats promised to resist.
The normally festive time of year turned serious Monday as details of the deal emerged. Vice President Joe Biden, who brokered the deal in marathon sessions with Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican minority leader, was dispatched to the Capitol for an intense 90-minute session with Democrats.
In an afternoon speech with middle-class Americans arrayed on risers behind him, Obama had urged congressional negotiators to press on and resolve the remaining issues.
"It's not done," Obama said from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. He called on Americans to urge their lawmakers to "see if we can get this done."
The talks had largely settled the income tax provisions, which would stop the increase on most Americans and raise rates for households making more than $450,000 a year. But the two sides remained at odds over how to deal with the automatic spending cuts.
"We are very, very close," an upbeat McConnell said on the Senate floor. "We can do this."
Lawmakers were told to stay near the Capitol, and many hunkered down there for New Year's Eve.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) hosted an evening gathering at her nearby home as lawmakers awaited word of final details. "We're serving beer, not champagne," she said.
Yet Democratic leaders remained largely silent on the proposal before Biden, a former senator who has cut deals with McConnell before, headed to Capitol Hill to brief his Democratic colleagues.
"Having been in the Senate as long as I have, there are two things you shouldn't do: You shouldn't predict how the Senate's going to vote before they vote," Biden said, emerging from the session, which lawmakers described as robust. "And number two, you surely shouldn't predict how the House is going to vote."
The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada deal-maker who stepped aside for Biden to negotiate with McConnell, offered visible evidence of the level of concern. Lawmakers came in and out of his door throughout the day.
"No deal is better than a bad deal," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an influential liberal. "And this looks like a very bad deal."
The powerful AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, tweeted his displeasure.
Conservatives similarly sounded off. "Republicans should kill the compromise, if there are no spending cuts," Erick Erickson, the conservative founder of the influential Red State blog, said in a tweet.
Putting the vote off until Tuesday would accomplish a political back flip that would be particularly advantageous for anti-tax Republicans, and it represented an option that has been discussed for months.
With the existing tax rates set to expire at midnight, Tuesday ushered in the new higher rates. By acting Tuesday rather than Monday, the congressional votes would technically be to lower tax rates on most Americans, rather than raise them.
Biden and McConnell were in close contact all day after working past midnight Sunday and resuming very early Monday morning to craft the deal.
The minority leader convened Republican senators behind closed doors at dinnertime, and many emerged optimistic that a deal was at hand.