Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate late Monday. "It… (Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly early Tuesday to approve legislation to halt a tax increase for all but the wealthiest Americans while postponing for two months deep spending cuts. The vote came just hours after the accord was reached between the White House and congressional leaders.
After a rare holiday session that lasted through the New Year’s Eve celebration and two hours into New Year’s Day, senators voted 89-8 to approve the proposal. Three Democrats and five Republicans dissented, most prominently Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“It took an imperfect solution to prevent our constituents from very real financial pain,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) said before the vote. “This shouldn’t be the model for how to do things around here. But I think we can say we’ve done some good for the country.”
President Obama, in a statement released by the White House early Tuesday morning, said, “While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country and the House should pass it without delay.”
The lopsided vote puts pressure on the House to swiftly follow suit to ensure the nation avoids the so-called fiscal cliff. As long as Congress is seen to be working toward a solution, no dire economic fallout is expected from the delay. The House is expected to bring the bill up Tuesday afternoon.
The deal, if approved by Congress, would represent a milestone for Republicans, whose anti-tax stance has defined the party since former President George H.W. Bush broke his promise not to raise taxes in 1990. 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.
Still, the deal spares the average middle class family a tax hike of about $2,200, a reality that drove the sense of urgency that motivated lawmakers in the frantic final hours of 2012.
“I’m not happy the way it happened, but it is what it is,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said before the vote. “It was very important that we prevent an increase on middle income taxes. And I’ll be working next year to get a bigger agreement.”
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 McConnell, 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.