Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) leaves a House Republican Caucus meeting where members considered the legislation that is supposed to blunt the effects of the 'fiscal cliff' during a rare New Year's Day session January 1, 2013 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (USA Today) -- House Republicans -- including a top leader -- expressed opposition Tuesday to the Senate-approved fiscal cliff agreement because it lacks sufficient spending cuts, complicating its chances of final passage.
Criticism surfaced during a close-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. "Conversations with members will continue throughout the afternoon on the path forward."
During the session, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told colleagues, "I'm opposed to this deal" in its current form, according to a lawmaker in the room who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record about private deliberations.
It was unclear if Cantor would vote against the bill in the end, but his opposition is an early warning sign the Senate-passed bill faces problems in the House. House GOP leaders were meeting Tuesday in private to come up with a plan on how to proceed. They were scheduled to reconvene their members to announce a decision later today.
"There's two schools of thought," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. Republicans can either pass the Senate bill and "live to fight another day" to reduce spending, or amend the bill to include addtional spending cuts."They're heading in that direction (to amend it)," he said.
"I would be shocked if this bill didn't go back to the Senate," added Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.
Doing so would throw the whole deal in to 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 Jan. 3.
There are concerns that if the House does not act, or significantly alters the Senate bill, it could spark a negative reaction from financial markets when they reopen Wednesday. "They're worried about the negative impact," LaTourette said of lawmakers who urged a vote on the Senate bill tonight.
Vice President Joe Biden returned to Capitol Hill to huddle with House Democrats, seeking to build support for the proposal to avoid most of the tax hikes and budget cuts associated with the "fiscal cliff" that took effect with the new year.
Biden addressed a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus that stretched for three hours on Tuesday afternoon to outline the details and address concerns from skeptical Democrats. After the meeting, Biden expressed confidence about the fate of the Senate bill as he left the White House to get lunch at Potbelly's. "I think we're going to be okay," Biden said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said given "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 signficant 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 higher rates above $400,000, instead of the $250,000 that President Obama had pledged in his reelection 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., includiing 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.
It's not known when, or even if, the House will vote on the package, which critics say does little to reduce the nation's debt and only delays a looming battle over the debt ceiling.
Some prominent House conservatives -- including Reps. Justin Amash and Jason Chaffetz -- have also said they will oppose the package.
Critics 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 at 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."
MORE: Highlights of Senate bill averting 'fiscal cliff'
FISCAL CLIFF: Obama to House: Pass the deal
STORY: The next battle: The debt ceiling
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%, 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.
Budget conflicts have been a recurring theme in the 112th Congress, which has distinguished itself as one of the least productive legislative sessions since World War II. The body also hit historically low approval ratings in the past two years.
The Democratic president and divided Congress first clashed in spring 2011 over a near-government shutdown. Tensions continued that summer during the fight over raising the national debt limit.
Such tensions are likely to happen again in 2013. Congress must approve in mid-February an increase in the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, the nation's borrowing authority, and in late March when the current federal funding runs out and another government shutdown threat looms if the partisan gridlock continues.
"When the president said (Monday) that round two is the debt ceiling, he is right," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Republicans will fight for spending cuts, particularly in entitlement programs like Medicare, in exchange for the required congressional approval to raise the debt ceiling. "If that's too much to ask, so be it," he said.