Jobs bill slowed by hunt for GOP votes
By Ben Pershing
Wondering why the Senate doesn't have a jobs bill ready yet? Two reasons -- snow and Snowe.
No, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) is not actually holding up the measure. She isn't even a key negotiator. But hers is the type of GOP vote Democrats are hoping to attract with their tax-credit-heavy package. And with the Snowpocalypse having begun in Washington, most senators have left town, putting off any announcement of a bipartisan deal until next week.
Though the January unemployment rate dropped to 9.7 percent, boosting the job market remains the number one domestic priority for both President Obama and congressional Democrats. Obama has proposed a variety of tax breaks and spending programs designed to spur the economy forward, many of which Hill leaders plan to incorporate into their own jobs agenda.
As recently as Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was saying he wanted to unveil the details of the first jobs bill by Friday and have the Senate take the first procedural vote on the package Monday. Now the schedule is more uncertain, though Democrats still hope to complete action on the bill before breaking for President's Day recess.
The centerpiece of the measure is expected to be a program allowing companies who hire unemployed workers the chance to avoid paying Social Security taxes on them for the duration of 2010. The package will also likely include an extension of the bill governing highway funding, support for Build America Bonds, an extension of unemployment and COBRA benefits and money to prevent a scheduled cut in physician payments under Medicare. Beyond those provisions, the exact combination of items depends on whether -- and how many -- Republicans get on board.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Thursday Democrats were close to having "meaningful" Republican support -- "enough to show that it is bipartisan."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) -- the co-author with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) of the job tax credit proposal -- is heavily involved in the talks, as is Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance panel. If Hatch and Grassley sign on to the proposal, it's likely at least some other Republicans will follow suit.
"We like the direction of tax incentives to the private sector rather than more government jobs," Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said Thursday. "We don't like the idea of paying for it with the bank bailout money, because by law that's all supposed to go to reduce the debt. ... The question of how to pay for it will be as big as any other question."
Indeed, securing the GOP's support will likely mean Democrats won't be able to offset their jobs bill with unspent funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, as House Democrats did with the jobs measure they passed in December. It remains unclear what offsets the two parties can agree on in the Senate, and whether they might just agree not to pay for most of it. Negotiators are also still working on the details of a package of extensions of expiring tax credits.
The talks have become a magnet for unrelated issues. Grassley is reportedly pushing Democrats for a pledge that the Senate will soon take up legislation to address the estate tax, a priority for many Republicans. (The estate tax is currently at zero but is scheduled to jump to pre-Bush administration levels in 2011 if Congress doesn't take action.) And Democrats are mulling the addition of extensions for provisions of other bills that are set to expire by the end of February, such as the USA Patriot Act.
If the two parties agree on the details early next week, they could move the bill through the Senate fairly quickly, bypassing the committee process and a lengthy floor debate. Democratic leaders made clear Thursday that this is only the first in a planned series of jobs bills, with future measures likely to encompass new infrastructure spending, energy efficiency programs and increased aid to small businesses as well as different variations of the tax credit for creating new jobs.
February 5, 2010; 1:23 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Capitol Briefing
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