Congress continues debate on fiscal cliff late Tuesday

Louisiana’s two U.S. senators both voted for the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal early Tuesday, but the Republican House members from the state’s congressional delegation expressed a lot more opposition and concern as an expected late-evening House vote loomed.

The Republican House leadership was debating late Tuesday whether to vote on the bill that passed the Senate with 89 bipartisan votes or to attempt to amend more budget cuts into the bill. Such amendments before the new Congress is sworn in on Thursday could end up as deal breakers for the Democratic-controlled Senate or the White House.

U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, who opposes the bill and tax increases in any form, said he did not believe there were enough House votes to amend the bill late Tuesday.

He predicted the House would pass the Senate version in a late-evening vote with mostly Democratic support and enough Republicans looking at the “bright side” of what is in the bill.

Fleming said he dislikes the tax hikes on the wealthy and the lack of spending cuts, but he acknowledged amending the bill “could throw the whole situation in chaos” and remain fallen over the cliff for at least several more days.

“I don’t think America is in that mood right now,” Fleming said. “I think they’d rather see an imperfect bill passed than see it made a little better.”

With the cliff having been crossed for a day, House support late Tuesday would send the compromise fix to President Barack Obama for his signature.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who will soon chair the conservative Republican Study Committee, argued earlier Tuesday afternoon that there was “pretty broad support” in the House to amend the bill to add in more cuts to offset the automatic spending cuts, called sequestration, which the bill delays by two months.

“I don’t support the bill in its current form,” Scalise said. “The bill actually increases spending.”

Despite the concerns from House Republicans, both Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., were among the 89 senators voting for the compromise bill after 2 a.m. Tuesday.

Obama compromised from his original plan to only raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. The current bill increases the threshold to $450,000 for households, or $400,000 for individual filers.

The plan also would extend several tax credits and unemployment benefits, but both Republicans and Democrats are agreeing to let the payroll tax cut expire.

The agreement also would patch the Alternative Minimum Tax and increase estate taxes only for higher value properties. The bill also extends the federal farm bill to avert the so-called “milk cliff.”

“This is a much better tax outcome under Obama than I would have guessed,” Vitter said in an email response just before 3 a.m. Tuesday. “It preserves the Bush tax cuts for 99 percent of Americans, with good policy on the death tax, dividends and capital gains, so important to small business.

“Just as importantly, it makes it all permanent, which we could never do before,” Vitter added. “But, of course we still must pass real and dramatic spending reform. For me, that’s a non-negotiable requirement of all budget or debt limit bills, due around March 1.”

In a prepared statement, Landrieu said the Senate vote proved that lawmakers can work out compromises with strong bipartisan support.

“This legislation will protect more than 98 percent of Louisianians from an income tax increase, preserve key tax credits for 576,000 Louisiana families with children and 158,000 families to help pay for higher education, and maintain the Earned Income Tax Credit,” Landrieu stated. “In addition, we worked hard to extend the estate tax in a reasonable way that protects small businesses and farmers.

“While this compromise did not do as much as we had hoped to reduce the deficit, I remain committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find a balanced approach to deficit reduction that includes both spending cuts and new revenues,” she added.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, whose time in Congress ends later this week, said he was surprised the Senate vote received so much Republican support but that he does not begrudge Vitter for backing the plan.

Landry said he would not even consider backing the bill until “real spending cuts” are added.

U.S. Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, also expressed concerns on Monday about the plan not including enough budget cuts and delaying such fiscal decision making.