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House prepares bills on debt ceiling, jobs

By Ben Pershing and Perry Bacon Jr.
Saturday, December 12, 2009; A10

House Democrats are readying a package of bills for next week that will likely include a significant increase in the federal debt ceiling and tens of billions of dollars for job creation, hoping to clear the decks of two key issues before Congress adjourns for the year.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday that leaders were planning to raise the nation's credit limit by at least $1.8 trillion, a much larger increase than Democrats had contemplated earlier this year. The current limit of $12.1 trillion is expected to be reached by the end of December.

A group of Senate Democrats insists that an increase in the debt ceiling be coupled with the creation of a bipartisan task force that could push deficit-reduction measures through Congress. Separately, conservative House Democrats are demanding rules be put into law that require new spending increases or tax cuts to be offset by spending cuts or a tax hike.

Negotiations between House and Senate leaders and the White House on the conflicting proposals are expected to continue into next week.

The House has approved a smaller debt-limit increase, which the Senate could simply pass as well if no deal is reached. Otherwise, a boost in the ceiling would be added to the defense appropriations measure, which will very likely also be the vehicle for an employment bill. House Democrats are firming up the details of a jobs package that would cost roughly $70 billion.

"We're very determined to have a targeted jobs program as part of this bill," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The package Democrats are working on will include funding for increased unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance, food stamps and Medicaid. It will probably include as much as $50 billion for infrastructure projects, and money to help states and local governments avoid laying off vital personnel, such as teachers and firefighters.

The Congressional Black Caucus offered its own jobs proposals Friday and called for devoting, in many cases, at least 10 percent of their funding toward communities where at least 20 percent of the population is at or below the federal poverty line. Such an approach would meet the CBC's goal of getting more help to low-income people and minorities, who are suffering even higher rates of unemployment in the recession.

It remains unclear whether the Senate, which is considering an omnibus spending bill this weekend before returning to the health-care debate, will have time this month to consider the full package of bills likely to come from the House. But House Democrats believe it is worth passing a jobs measure now, even if the Senate can't, so that lawmakers could go home for Christmas with a tangible accomplishment to promote.

Democrats want to fund a portion of their jobs package with unspent money from the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program. The Obama administration is also considering ways to funnel TARP money to help small businesses.

Before the House voted Friday to approve a bill that will change how financial firms are regulated, the chamber rejected a Republican-backed proposal to use unspent TARP funds to pay down the national debt. The measure failed by a vote of 232 to 190, with the vast majority of Democrats opposing it.

Republicans have signaled they will press this issue as part of a series of efforts to cast Democrats as spending too much. "House Democrats voted to continue TARP and go right on spending taxpayer dollars with reckless abandon," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

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