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Fiscal deal sails through Senate, awaits House action

In the end, it wasn't close.
Vice President Biden on Capitol Hill last night.
Vice President Biden on Capitol Hill last night.

In the end, it wasn't close. Despite the fact that no one on either side seemed especially impressed with the fiscal agreement negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Biden, the deal nevertheless passed 89 to 8. Among the eight opponents were five Republicans and three Democrats.

The Senate did not quite make its midnight deadline -- the vote was held at nearly 2 a.m. -- but with House action delayed, it didn't much matter.

Despite widespread grumbling, leaders on both sides made statements expressing satisfaction. President Obama called the agreement "the right thing to do for our country," which was followed soon after by a similar statement from McConnell: "I think we can say we've done some good for the country."

From a progressive perspective, there's plenty to disapprove of in this compromise, and I'll explore the president's concessions in more detail later, but I'd note one observation in the agreement's defense: if you'd told me a week ago that the Senate would easily approve a fiscal deal with no Medicare cuts, no Social Security cuts, and no new spending cuts of any kind, I probably wouldn't have believed you. And yet, that's what happened.

In the short term, however, the more pressing question is whether the package will actually reach the president's desk. We can all think of plenty of instances in which a controversial measure will clear one chamber, only to run into stiff opposition in the other, and House passage today is hardly a sure thing.

The House Speaker, John A. Boehner, and the Republican House leadership said the House would "honor its commitment to consider the Senate agreement." But, they added, "decisions about whether the House will seek to accept or promptly amend the measure will not be made until House members -- and the American people -- have been able to review the legislation."Even with that cautious assessment, Republican House aides said a vote Tuesday was possible.

Getting to 218 votes won't be easy.

Given the failure of House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B," it seems obvious that a package like the Senate deal won't enjoy the backing of most House Republicans, and will need a whole lot of Democratic votes to secure a majority. With that in mind, it's worth noting that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has signed off on the deal, and one of her top lieutenants, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), believes "there will probably be enough Democrat support for it," though he personally remained undecided as of this morning.

House Republicans, meanwhile, will meet behind closed doors today at 1 p.m. Many prominent members have already denounced the Senate bill, and as best as I can tell, Boehner has not yet thrown his own support behind the deal.

There are a few scenarios to keep in mind. The first is the possibility that the House may try to amend the Senate version, make it more right-wing to satisfy House Republicans, and then send it back to the upper chamber with an ultimatum: pass the House version or else. If this happens, the agreement will quickly unravel.

The second is the conundrum the Speaker faces. If the vast majority of his caucus opposes the Senate deal, does Boehner try to pass it anyway with a sliver of GOP votes and Democratic support? If he does, Boehner may put his career in jeopardy -- House leadership votes are 48 hours away -- and he knows it.

And finally, another delay in the vote itself is also possible. The House originally intended to vote yesterday, and then pushed it back until today. If the vote is postponed until Thursday, Boehner and GOP leaders may have an easier time of passing the bill -- a new Congress with a larger Democratic minority will have been sworn in, and this group of lawmakers may be more amenable to compromise than the current crew.

Of course, if the House does wait, the Senate will have to vote again on the bill it approved overnight -- and that vote would also be with its new members.

There was some relief on Capitol Hill last night, but this isn't over.