YAKIMA, Wash. — The next big test for a divided Congress will be legislation on the national debt limit and spending cuts, two issues left out of the fiscal cliff deal adopted late Tuesday, said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, who voted in favor of the compromise.
Hastings said Wednesday he expects the House of Representatives to begin work soon on both of those issues, suggesting the effort would focus on raising the debt limit along with at least the same amount of spending cuts. According to the Treasury Department, Congress must act by late February to raise the federal debt limit. Shortly thereafter, automatic spending cuts, delayed by two months in the fiscal cliff deal, will take effect.
Hastings, the 10-term Republican congressman from Pasco, said the House majority favors addressing the debt issue soon to avoid a repeat of the 11th hour action on the tax issue.
“What we have is a spending problem and not a revenue problem. The national debt is up by 50 percent in four years,” Hastings said in a telephone interview. “You simply can’t keep kicking that ahead to future generations. If we are going to raise the debt limit, we need a commitment of at least that much if not more in spending cuts.”
Hastings blasted President Barack Obama for saying late Tuesday he would oppose linking the debt issue and spending cuts.
“For the president to suggest as he did that he would not engage in that discussion is absolutely irresponsible,” Hastings said.
Hastings was one of 85 Republicans to vote for the measure to avert an income tax increase for all Americans due to the Jan. 1 expiration of the Bush era tax cuts. The measure made permanent existing tax rates for those earning less than $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples. There will, however, be a tax increase for most Americans because the Social Security payroll tax cut was not extended into 2013. The payroll tax on workers will rise from 4.2 percent back to the original 6.2 percent, costing the typical middle-class family about $1,000 per year, according to estimates.
The House vote was 257 in favor and 167 opposed. The House vote followed approval by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89-8.
Both Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell voted with the Senate majority. Murray issued a statement following that vote expressing disappointment that Congress could not reach a comprehensive agreement, leaving the budget debate far from settled. She added, however, that the deal protects families and small businesses from major tax hikes.
Cantwell’s statement called the fiscal cliff deal a step in the right direction.
“Moving forward, both parties need to work together to avoid the arbitrary cuts of sequestration and to provide greater certainty for our economy,” her statement said.
Hastings said he decided how he would vote before he learned the position of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“This is as good as we will get and we won’t have to debate it on a yearly basis because these (rates) are now permanent,” Hastings said.
Other elements of the agreement, worked out by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Vice President Joe Biden, included a two-year extension through 2013 of the sales tax deduction for Washington residents who itemize their taxes. The deduction expired at the end of 2011.
Hastings also pointed to increasing the estate tax threshold and indexing the alternative minimum tax to inflation, as well as a five-year extension of the child tax credit, the earned income credit, and certain educational tax credits as reasons for his vote.
Hastings joined the three other House Republicans from the state in voting for the measure.
Three Democrats also voted in favor. Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Seventh District, and Adam Smith, D-Ninth District, voted against the bill.
The measure also extended by nine months the 2008 farm bill, prompting consternation from national and regional farm groups that had favored passage of a new five-year farm bill. A version of the farm bill passed the Senate during the early summer but was never taken up by the House because of concern that cuts in the measure didn’t go far enough.
While the extension maintains programs, such as the $200 million market access program that helps commodity groups promote their products overseas, it did not provide baseline funding for research in specialty crops like apples, pears and cherries, three major Valley fruit crops.
Funding for those efforts, which have focused in part on increasing automation to reduce the demand on a declining labor supply, will have to be sought this year, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima.
The council represents the region’s tree-fruit industry on trade and regulatory issues.
He said farm groups will have to try to secure research funding this year, which will be difficult because of the pressure to reduce spending.
“There are some things that overall are good in this deal,” Schlect said. “In terms of the farm bill, it is a bit iffy on some programs that are important to us.”
• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or email@example.com.
This report has been updated to correct the number of terms Rep. Doc Hastings has spent in Congress.