A little Congressional civics on the fiscal cliff

I have had a number of emails asking me about what the House passed this year on the fiscal cliff and whether those bills were taken up by the Senate.

That is an issue as both sides blame the other for not reaching a deal on the fiscal cliff, with Republicans in the House saying the Senate must act next, and Democrats in the Senate saying the House GOP must take charge.

The House has passed two plans that would have a direct impact on the fiscal cliff already this year, one on taxes, one on the budget that deals with the automatic spending reductions set to start on January 2.

On August 1, the House approved H.R. 8, a bill that would extend the Bush tax rates for all Americans for one more year; the vote was 256-171.

That bill was sent to the Senate, where it was placed on the legislative calendar. It has not been brought up for any amendments or votes.

Just before a final House vote on H.R. 8, the House rejected a plan from Democrats to extend the current tax rates for those making less than $250,000 a year; the vote was 246-181 against that idea.

On May 10, the House approved H.R. 5652, which makes a series of spending changes to avert automatic budget cuts for the military; that vote was 218-199.

Like the Bush tax rates bill, the sequester bill was placed on the Senate calendar and has not been brought up on the floor for further action.

Republicans say this is basic civics – the House has approved two bills and sent them to the Senate, and those measures deserve action in this tax and budget impasse.

Democrats meanwhile say the House should consider a Senate-passed bill that would extend the Bush tax rates for everyone who makes less than $250,000 per year.

That plan, S. 3412, the Middle Class Tax Cut Act, was approved on a vote of 51-48 on July 25.

As in the House when Republicans were able to defeat an alternative plan from Democrats, the Senate turned down a GOP plan to extend current tax rates for all by a vote of 54-45 against.

Democrats say that $250,000 tax rate bill should be taken up immediately by the House and voted on, but because that measure originated in the Senate, it would face a series of “blue slip” objections in the House (and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday that the papers for the bill have never even been sent to the House.)

That Senate Democratic plan is much like H.R. 15, a measure introduced by House Democrats that has been the subject of a special parliamentary effort known as a “discharge petition” in the House.

If Democrats can get a majority of House members to sign that petition, then it would force the bill to the House floor. As of last night, there were 183 Democrats who had signed on and no Republicans, leaving it 35 signatures short of action.

There are currently 191 Democrats in the House, so there are eight House Democrats who have not signed on to that discharge petition, they are:

Rep. John Barrow (D-GA)
Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL)
Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN)
Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)
Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT)
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)
Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA)

Even if all of those Democrats add their name to this petition, backers would still need 27 Republicans to join them.

One more issue that several readers have asked about – does a fiscal cliff bill have to start in the House?

Well, technically yes, but the answer right now is just “sort of.”  For example, the Senate could take a revenue/spending bill that was already approved by the House, and then use it as a “legislative vehicle” for provisions dealing with the fiscal cliff.

In fact, that is what the Senate did in recent days on a Hurricane Sandy relief bill.  The bill started off as one dealing with the defense budget last year, now it holds the Sandy disaster aid provisions.  Senate approval is expected in coming days and that bill will be sent back to the House.

In the case of the Bush tax cuts bill from Democrats, the Senate could have attached the tax relief measures to a House-passed revenue measure, and avoided the “blue slip” problems in the House.  But Senate Democrats chose not to do that, as the bill has not come before the House officially.

So, that is the basic overview of where we stand in the Congress on the fiscal cliff.  Both sides say the other isn’t doing enough to bring about a deal, both sides say the other has blocked their plans for a solution to the tax and budget impasse.

And the clock keeps ticking.  And the deadline is growing ever closer.

And I have this gnawing feeling that I will be “celebrating” New Year’s in the U.S. Capitol.