Amid anxiety, jobs bill takes shape on the Hill
By Ben Pershing
The White House jobs summit opens today amid concerns on Capitol Hill that the administration has not done enough to address unemployment and uncertainty over how and when Congress can deliver a jobs bill to the president's desk.
"There's a jobs summit, but nobody in my district knows what that is," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who recently launched the JOBS NOW! Congressional Caucus. "They see the same faces that created the problem sitting at the table saying they're going to solve the problem. Something is wrong with that picture."
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, agreed that much more needed to be done.
"I think when we did the first stimulus bill, it was a shotgun approach," Grijalva said. "Jobs were a secondary consideration. This next round -- it has to be about job creation."
Labor unions and liberal think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute have released ambitious proposals to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on job creation programs. The Congressional Black Caucus, increasingly vocal with its own concerns about the administration's priorities, has promised to release legislative proposals of its own. But the details of a consensus plan, and the timing of its passage, remain elusive.
Democrats in both chambers are mulling a broad range of ideas, including increased help for the unemployed, a jobs tax credit, additional aid to states, additional infrastructure spending, tax reductions for small businesses and a public jobs program.
In the House, Democrats are cobbling together ideas with a tentative goal of passing a package this month. "It's our hope to have something before we adjourn on Dec. 18," said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
But neither Larson nor his fellow leaders will commit to such fast consideration until they have the details of a measure in hand. House leaders have toyed with the idea of attaching a jobs package to an end-of-session omnibus spending bill, but it's unclear how much political weight such a measure could bear.
At a minimum, aides said the chamber is likely to consider extending or expanding unemployment benefits, COBRA health-care coverage and food stamps. Whether additional items can be included will depend on whether members can find a way to pay for them. Democrats are studying whether they can re-purpose unspent money from the TARP bailout program, though they have made no decisions on whether to press forward with that option.
Some liberal lawmakers have signed on to a proposal by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to fund a jobs bill and other spending priorities with a new tax on financial transactions, but that idea has drawn little support from Democratic leaders and staunch opposition from the Treasury Department as well as Wall Street.
In the Senate, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) have been tasked with sorting through ideas submitted by several different committees, including proposals for a boost in lending to small businesses and increased promotion of Build America Bonds to fund infrastructure projects. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) is promoting a program that would provide federal funding to supplement the incomes of employees who work reduced hours because of the economic crisis.
And members in both chambers, led by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), are also keenly interested in using a jobs bill to increase transportation funding.
Unless an omnibus spending bill is used as a vehicle, there is no chance of the Senate's passing a jobs measure this month because the health-care debate will eat up most of the legislative calendar. Instead, Democrats hope to pivot in January or February off of what one aide called the "ethereal" health-care measure onto a more concrete and easily explained jobs bill.
Some Democrats have been unnerved by reports that the White House will shift to a more deficit-conscious message in 2010, particularly if that shift means the administration will promote less aggressive measures to boost employment. A long-term commitment to controlling the deficit may be of little help to lawmakers who face the prospect of running for reelection next year with the jobless rate still running high.
"When I went back home, I didn't hear that much about the deficit," Grijalva said. "I heard about foreclosure and unemployment."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a key appropriator, said Tuesday she was undecided on whether a new jobs package would have to be offset, despite her concerns about the government's red ink.
"Obviously you have to have a strong economy in order to deal with the debt," Murray said.
Republicans, for their part, are wary of any new proposal that deepens the country's fiscal hole.
"Tax credits are appealing but any proposal we can make has to pass the test: Can we afford it?" said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a member of the GOP leadership. "Right now we've got too big a debt."
House Republicans are planning a bit of counterprogramming for the White House jobs summit, scheduling for Thursday a roundtable discussion featuring prominent economists who are critical of the Obama administration's policies, including former Bush administration official Larry Lindsey and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the chief policy adviser to Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) used a speech at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday to present an alternative vision for a jobs bill, including calls for a halt to new federal regulations and tax hikes and for passage of stalled free-trade agreements.
"The contrast between our conservative vision and the policies being pursued by those in charge is stark," Cantor said. "While they push for driving us deeper into debt, we will stand for the virtues of restraint."
December 3, 2009; 9:09 AM ET
Categories: Agenda , Branch vs. Branch
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