AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour in limbo. Early this morning, barely two hours into the new year, the Senate voted 89 to 8 to keep tax rates just where they were last year for all household income up to $450,000. Midnight brought the expiration of those rates, along with a schedule of new, deep spending cuts that the Senate vote would delay. But that vote means nothing without the House acting as well.
And though the Senate bill passed with strong Republican support, it's not yet clear if the GOP will try to amend the Senate compromise. Joining me from the Capitol is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. And David, I understand that the House is in session, and that it's going to be taking up the bill that the Senate passed earlier?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the bill has formerly been sent to the House, but it has not yet been brought to the floor for debate in a vote. I think there's tremendous uncertainty despite the overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate about how House members would vote on this compromise that was forged by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Even among Democrats, things are unclear. The vice president met with the entire House Democratic caucus behind closed doors for hours earlier this afternoon to try to sell them on the deal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi came out afterwards and she called on House Speaker John Boehner to put the bill on the House floor and hold a straight up or down vote on it with no amendments.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: Whether we have an up or down vote shouldn't even be a question. There shouldn't even be a question. We were told when the - we would not have any legislation on the floor until and unless the Senate acted. And when they did, we would have a vote. And so, we want to have that vote.
WELNA: Now, Pelosi refused to say how many fellow Democrats she could count on to vote for the measure. She said they would all need some time to give it some consideration. But she also noted that time is quickly running out. A new Congress is being sworn in on Thursday and this legislation dies when that happens.
CORNISH: And on the other side of the aisle, what's been the reaction from House Republicans to this bill?
WELNA: Well, not very positive and in many cases, extremely negative. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's come out against the bill. He's often taken sides with the hard-line Tea Party-backed House Republicans, so that may not be such a surprise. But even moderate Republicans, such as Ohio's Steve LaTourette, who's about to retire, say they don't like the fact that the bill is only about extending benefits and raising some people's taxes.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE LATOURETTE: This isn't a done deal, by a long stretch. I mean, this does nothing to cut spending and there are a lot of people, including me, that think that that's a big weakness.
WELNA: When LaTourette was asked what the alternative was, he said it's to mend the Senate bill and send it back there with some spending reductions. Of course, if he did that, if the House were to do that, it would effectively blow up the deal worked out by Biden and McConnell and the Senate would have to take yet another vote and all this would have to happen before noon Thursday when the new Congress is sworn in.
CORNISH: So will there be enough Republicans supporting this compromise to get it through the House?
WELNA: If it's not amended, I don't think there are enough GOP votes alone to get it through the House and it's not clear whether there would even be a majority of the GOP majority backing the deal. Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, who's on the GOP vote counting team, thinks it will take a combination of votes from both parties to pass the Senate measure.
REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: I think more members want this to pass than are willing to vote for it, frankly. And that's fair enough. And some have principled opposition, but you also have to be practical about what's the best deal you can get, given the circumstances that you have. There's going to be a lot of Democratic votes for this. I think there will be a substantial number of Republican votes as well, and there should be.
CORNISH: Finally, David, what's at stake here for House Speaker John Boehner?
WELNA: You know, I think that we have here the most crucial test to date of the two-year-old speakership of John Boehner. He's stuck so far to a GOP policy of not bringing up any bill in the House that does not have the support of the majority of his fellow Republicans, but as I said, he may not have that majority for this bill.
So does he free up his members to vote as they wish and hope enough of them join Democrats to get the bill passed? If he does that, there may be some nasty consequences for him when House Republicans vote on Thursday for Speaker of the House. That's the first vote that the House will task in the new Congress.
Boehner doesn't have any clear rivals at this point for his job, but he may want to get reelected and keep his job before resolving this issue of the lapsed tax rates.
CORNISH: NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. David, thank you.
WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.