U.S. poised to veer off fiscal cliff as House postpones budget vote

The U.S. House of Representatives doesn’t plan any votes on the federal budget Monday night, meaning that Congress for now will fail to avert US$600-billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to start at midnight.

Taxpayers and investors won’t see immediate effects of the changes, which would accumulate over a matter of months. Congress could reverse them by acting retroactively early in 2013. There are signs they may do just that.

It appears that an agreement to prevent this New Year’s tax hike is within sight, but it’s not done

Earlier Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers in Congress were “very, very close” to a deal to avert the budget changes, known as the fiscal cliff. The Kentucky Republican called on lawmakers to “pass the tax-relief portion” of a budget agreement being negotiated that would continue lower tax rates for all but the highest earners.

The only House votes scheduled for Monday are on non-budget items, according to the chamber’s schedule. House Republicans plan a private conference meeting at 5 p.m. Washington time, and Senate Republicans will meet at 4:30 p.m.

President Barack Obama said before McConnell spoke that a deal to avert tax increases and spending cuts starting tomorrow is “within sight” though it hasn’t been completed.

“It appears that an agreement to prevent this New Year’s tax hike is within sight, but it’s not done,” Obama told a group of what the White House described as middle-class taxpayers. He urged people to “keep the pressure on over the next 12 hours or so; let’s get this thing done.”

Fiscal Cliff

Lawmakers are seeking to avert tax increases and spending cuts that make up the so-called fiscal cliff. Even if a deal is reached and can get through both chambers of Congress in the coming days, it would be more limited than Obama and leaders of both parties sought. It also would set up another fight early in 2013 over the budget and the federal debt limit.

The president said the main sticking point was how to avoid the automatic federal spending cuts set to begin Tuesday. Those “may not always be the smartest cuts” and would affect defense as well as programs like Head Start, he said.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rallied 1.7% to 1,426.20 at 4 p.m. in New York. The 10-year Treasury yield increased six basis points, or 0.06 percentage point, to 1.76% at 2 p.m. in New York, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader prices.

Under a proposed deal, income tax cuts would be extended for annual income up to $450,000, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity, with rates rising to 39.6 percent on income above that. Expanded unemployment insurance would be continued through 2013.

No Reid Signoff

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the floor schedule, hasn’t signed off on any potential deal, according to a Democratic aide. No deal could reach the floor without Reid’s signoff.

Some Senate Democrats expressed resistance toward an income threshold for increased tax rates that would be higher than the US$250,000 they sought.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said on the Senate floor that he doesn’t support a US$450,000 income threshold, signaling that any deal reached by Vice President Joe Biden and McConnell could lose the votes of some Democrats.

“This is one Democrat that doesn’t agree with that — at all,” Harkin said on the Senate floor. “We’re going to lock in forever the idea that US$450,000 a year is middle class in America?”

‘Extended Debate’

Harkin didn’t answer directly when asked later whether he might use Senate rules to block a deal he didn’t agree with, saying only that there could be “extended debate.”

Capital gains and dividend rates would rise to 23.8% for top earners, including taxes as part of the 2010 health-care law, according to the official.

Estate tax rates would rise to 40% on amounts above US$5-million per person. Extensions of business tax breaks would continue through the end of 2013. The measure would permanently prevent an expansion of the alternative minimum tax.

The Senate Finance Committee in August approved extending miscellaneous tax breaks through 2013, including benefits for wind energy, corporate research and multinationals’ overseas finance operations.

The potential deal also would avert a cut in Medicare payments to doctors through 2013.

Biden and McConnell discussed a possible two-month delay in the spending cuts, while Senate Democratic leaders had been pushing for at least a yearlong extension, according to a congressional aide close to the negotiations. A two-month pause in the automatic cuts would require US$24-billion in additional savings that Republicans are demanding in exchange.

Savings Elsewhere

Republicans insisted that the spending cuts be offset with savings elsewhere in the budget and that new revenue should be used to reduce the deficit.

Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said House Speaker John Boehner has been “hands off” in the Senate negotiations. He said if a deal includes averting automatic cuts, it would need to include spending cuts in exchange for those.

“When it comes here we’ll figure out what we can pass,” Rogers told reporters. “If we don’t have real spending cuts, I don’t think it could pass the House of Representatives.”

Boehner has previously said he would bring any budget legislation passed by the Senate to the House floor, though members may decide to amend it.

Bush Tax Cuts

Tax cuts first enacted during George W. Bush’s presidency are scheduled to expire tonight. Obama and other Democrats have sought to extend the reductions for married couples’ income up to US$250,000 a year while letting tax rates rise for income above that amount. Republicans oppose tax rate increases for any income level.

Allowing the fiscal changes to take effect would cause a recession in the first half of 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In the event the Senate can’t reach a compromise, Obama has asked Reid to ready a bare-bones bill for a vote Monday to extend expanded unemployment benefits and tax cuts on family income up to US$250,000.

If Congress does nothing, taxes will rise in 2013 by an average of US$3,446 for U.S. households, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington.

Tax filing for as many as two-thirds of U.S. taxpayers could be delayed into at least late March. Defense spending would be cut, and the economy would probably enter a recession in the first half of 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

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