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House approves 'fiscal cliff' deal

The House late last night gave final approval to a Senate-backed bill that will let taxes rise for the richest Americans, shield the middle class from tax hikes and extend emergency unemployment benefits, ending Washington's long drama over the "fiscal cliff."

The dramatic vote followed a wild day in which the critical measure was assumed for several hours to be headed for defeat because of widespread Republican objections.

The vote was 257 to 167, with 85 Republicans joining with nearly all of the chamber's Democrats.

President Obama, whose vice president, Joe Biden, crafted the deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), hailed the vote in a late-night address from the White House.

"Under this law, more than 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses will not see their income taxes go up. . . . Everybody worked hard on this, and I appreciate it,'' Obama said.

But the president, with Biden at his side, also issued a veiled threat to Republicans over what is now shaping up as one of the next key conflicts between the two parties over the next several months: raising the federal government's borrowing authority.

Referring to last year's debt ceiling crisis -- in which conservative House Republicans helped push the nation to the brink of default -- Obama warned: "While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills they have already racked up. . . . We can't go down that path again.''

Before the vote, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) urged his colleagues to vote for the bill "not as a Democrat, not as a Republican, but as an American who understands that our people believe that action is necessary.''

Yet he expressed some of the reluctance lawmakers on both sides felt over a compromise that seemed to fully please no one.

"I severely regret that this is not a big, bold and balanced plan," Hoyer said. "We had an opportunity to reach such an agreement in a bipartisan fashion. And we will not reach a big, bold, balanced plan without bipartisanship, because the decisions we'll have to make will be too difficult not to do in a bipartisan fashion."

Earlier, in a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had outlined options for handling the bill, including a proposal to satisfy conservatives by tacking on billions of dollars in new spending cuts.

But the leaders warned that the Senate was unlikely to approve any changes to the carefully calibrated compromise and that a vote to amend the measure probably would leave the nation facing historic tax increases for virtually every American -- and force House Republicans to take the blame.

The other option: Let the measure pass the House unchanged and go to the White House for Obama's signature.

Late last night, it appeared that even some of the chamber's staunchest conservatives were ready to give up the fight.

"I think the best outcome is to have a clean bill, actually put it on the floor and see what the consensus of the House is," said Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho), a freshman who has opposed every major bipartisan compromise on the budget over the past two years and said he would vote against the measure.

The measure would protect more than 100 million families earning less than $250,000 a year from significant income tax increases set to take effect this month -- although payroll taxes will rise for most households in 2013 with the end of a temporary tax cut approved two years ago.

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