"There's lots and lots of pork in this bill," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.).
On Tuesday would come their last test.
After the Senate passed the compromise bill, the GOP-controlled House had to decide whether to accept it as is or reject it and run the risk of triggering an economic disaster.
The bargain had been worked out on the phone by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), two 70-year-olds with a combined 68 years in office in Washington. They stepped in after President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) tried, and failed, to reach a far-reaching agreement to tackle the debt.
Instead, McConnell and Biden lowered their ambitions and cut a "small deal." It would raise marginal tax rates only for a sliver of high-earning individuals and avert a massive budget cut by pushing it back for two months.
But "small" was really not the best description. The bill would carry a substantial cost.
Although it would raise some taxes, it also would extend the vast majority of the Bush-era tax cuts, as well as loopholes for many businesses. In all, the bill would cause deficits to rise by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But that estimated increase is based on the massive tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to take effect without a fiscal cliff resolution.
House Republicans wanted the Bush tax cuts to be extended. But they had also wanted big spending cuts. To many of them, the bill looked like a massive failure of will.
The bill that McConnell and Biden crafted was also not small in a physical sense. It ran to more than 30,000 words of small type. And many of those words had nothing to do with the marquee controversies of the fiscal cliff.
Instead, McConnell and Biden had included Capitol Hill's version of stowaways: "riders," unrelated provisions, attached to this bill because somebody in power wanted badly for them to pass.
"It's a train, leaving the station, as they used to say," said Roberton Williams of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. "Climb aboard and go for a ride."
There were dozens of rider provisions that had nothing to do with the cliff. The renewable-energy industry got one worth $12 billion over 10 years. The owners of motorsports racing tracks got one that will cost $78 million. A $1 million break will help coal-mining operations on Indian lands.
On Tuesday, with only a few hours to look at the Senate bill, House legislators complained, they had not begun to understand what McConnell and Biden had concocted.
"It's the only responsible way to proceed: to make sure we see and understand what's in the bill and what we're voting on," said Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.). "I think most of the American people would expect that. It's how business should be done here in Washington, instead of being forced into a vote and finding out what's in it later on."
But, just a few hours later, Barletta said he was ready to vote. In the interim, he'd heard that Senate leaders were saying they wouldn't vote on an amended House bill. The Senate had left the House with little choice: Accept this path to avoid the cliff, or there would be no other.
"I'm not willing at this point to risk tax hikes to all Americans not knowing what the Senate will do," he said. "We will have that fight over spending. No question."