WASHINGTON (USA Today) - A divided Republican House prepared Tuesday night to pass the Senate's "fiscal cliff" bill, following a tense day of GOP protests that the plan lacked sufficient spending cuts.
After failing to find a majority to add spending cuts to the plan, the House approved the rule for a one-hour debate on passage of the Senate agreement as is. A final vote is set for later in the evening.
A GOP leadership aide said the Senate bill is expected to pass with the assistance of House Democrats. The aide wasn't authorized to discuss the deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
At the White House, President Obama waited to sign the final bill.
Earlier, GOP leaders used a series of unrelated votes to determine that they could not muster the votes for a spending cut amendment to the plan approved early Tuesday morning by the Senate.
Eventually, they decided to put just the existing Senate bill on the floor. A final vote is expected some time Tuesday night on the plan designed to block tax hikes and delay spending cuts associated with the fiscal cliff that took effect with the turning of the new year on Tuesday.
An up-or-down vote on the Senate plan would require near unanimous support among Democrats to get it over the top in the face of significant GOP resistance. But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi predicted passage.
Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, said that while he would vote "no" on the Senate bill, he thought enough Republicans would vote yes to pass the measure with heavy Democratic support.
"The best outcome for us right now is it actually have a clean vote on the bill and actually put it on the House floor and see what the consensus of the House is," Labrador said.
Republican criticism of the Senate plan surfaced during a closed-door meeting hosted by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
"The lack of spending cuts in the Senate bill was a universal concern amongst members in today's meeting," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
Cantor actually told colleagues he was opposed to the Senate bill, though it was unclear if he would actually vote against it in the end. But his opposition was an early warning sign the Senate-passed bill faced problems in the House. House GOP leaders met throughout the day Tuesday in to come up with a plan on how to proceed.
After an early evening meeting of the Republican caucus, Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., said there were two options for Republicans: continue with the Senate bill or amend it. "To the credit of leadership they are trying to get a sense of where we as a conference are on this," he said.
Amending the agreement would have thrown the whole deal into question as the Senate has already overwhelmingly approved the bill. The House also faces a noon Thursday deadline before the next Congress is sworn in - erasing all prior action and leaving Congress to start anew with roughly 100 new lawmakers entering the House and Senate.
If the House does not act, or rejects the Senate plan, the fiscal cliff remains in force -- and President Obama and aides have made clear they would blame the Republicans for the string of tax increases and defense and social cuts that come with it.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said members were concerned about rattling financial markets or being blamed for going over the cliff. Republicans were also coalescing around the idea to battle over spending cuts in upcoming budget fights, including a brewing February battle to raise the debt ceiling.
"Now the topic will be spending cuts," he said.
Earlier in the day, Vice President Biden returned to Capitol Hill to huddle with House Democrats, seeking to build support for the Senate proposal.
Biden attended a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus that stretched for three hours on Tuesday, outlining the details and addressing concerns from skeptical Democrats. Later, Biden expressed confidence about the fate of the Senate bill as he left the White House for a meatball-and-provolone sandwich at Potbelly's. "I think we're going to be OK," Biden said to a CNN camera crew nearby.
House Minority Leader Pelosi, D-Calif., said given the "uncharacteristically, very strong bipartisan" vote in the Senate, Republicans should move to schedule an up-or-down vote on the measure.
"Right now, our members, after very thoughtful deliberations and review, are continuing to review the legislation, weighing pros and cons, weighing the equities of not going over the cliff," she said, adding that Democrats were awaiting guidance from GOP leaders on how they will proceed. "I think we have made gigantic progress."
Democrats declined to say how much support there was for the bill among their party, but it is expected to be significant considering the White House's endorsement. However, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters some members were unhappy with raising the tax thresholds for incomes above $400,000, instead of the $250,000 that President Obama had pledged in his re-election campaign.
In contrast to Republicans, the Democratic rank-and-file were optimistic as they left the Biden meeting.
"There are a lot of good things in here for Democrats to vote for," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., including higher tax rates on the wealthy and extended unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans.
The flurry of House activity came just hours after the Senate approved, 89-8, an agreement in the wee hours of New Year's Day, the deadline for the cliff.
The plan worked out between the White House and Senate leaders would raise taxes on the wealthy, eliminate some - but not all - tax hikes for the middle class, and defer a series of budget cuts for two months.
Critics said the plan does little to reduce the nation's debt and only delays a looming battle over the debt ceiling. They also pointed to a Tuesday report by the Congressional Budget Office, saying the Senate bill would add nearly $4 trillion to federal budget deficits over the next decade, largely because it extends the lower income tax rates for nearly every American.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, declined to talk to reporters on his way into the closed-door GOP meeting. "Happy New Year's, guys," he said.
Ryan is a prospective candidate in the 2016 presidential election; two additional potential GOP candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, voted against the bill early Tuesday.
Under the Senate deal, taxes would remain steady for the middle class and rise for incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples.
Spending cuts totaling $24 billion over two months aimed at the Pentagon and domestic programs would be deferred. That would allow the White House and lawmakers time to regroup before plunging very quickly into a new round of budget brinkmanship certain to revolve around Republican calls to rein in the cost of Medicare and other government benefit programs.
Shortly after the Senate vote, President Obama 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."
Obama also said the bill takes a balanced approach to shrinking the U.S. deficit by "investing in (the) middle class" while "asking the wealthy to pay a little more."
One set of taxes is set to go up in 2013: The deal does not address the end of the temporary payroll-tax holiday on Tuesday. That tax will rise by 2 percentage points, back to its 2010 level.
The deal also stops scheduled pay increases for Congress set for spring 2013 and includes a nine-month extension of the farm bill, which had been delayed for months because of differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation that sets U.S. agricultural policy every five years.
Biden played a critical role in working out the agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "I think it was very important," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. said Monday, noting that McConnell and Biden "have a long prior experience" working together. "That's the reason this is bipartisan."
The agreement does not address any increase in the nation's debt ceiling, which - combined with the delay of automatic spending cuts - sets up the distinct possibility of another cliff-like budget battle in February.