By Shailagh Murray and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A03
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced Thursday that his chamber would move quickly to pass four popular provisions aimed at creating jobs, potentially with the bipartisan backing that has proven elusive in recent months.
The provisions were plucked from a broader package of business incentives and unemployment aid negotiated by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his GOP counterpart, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa). But instead of advancing the bigger bill, Reid announced that he would break it into two parts, bringing the jobs-related incentives to a vote on Feb. 22. The remaining measures would move later as a separate bill.
"We feel that the American people need a message," Reid told reporters Thursday. "The message that they need is that we're doing something about jobs."
All the fast-tracked provisions have bipartisan support, but GOP senators were caught off-guard by Reid's bifurcated strategy, announced just as Republicans were releasing statements in praise of the larger bill. Senior Democratic aides said Reid made the move to quell squabbling among Democrats about the contents of the larger bill amid rising criticism that the legislation included too many special-interest perks.
As of Thursday night, it remained unclear whether Reid's maneuver would cost some GOP votes on either of the two bills. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who helped negotiate the broader bill, was "deeply disappointed that the majority leader has abandoned a genuine bipartisan compromise only hours after it was unveiled," said Antonia Ferrier, his spokeswoman.
The messy rollout obscured what otherwise appeared to be a constructive collaboration between the parties aimed at tackling persistently high unemployment. In another sign that the bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill might be abating somewhat, the Senate banking chairman, Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), announced Thursday that he would launch talks to overhaul banking regulations with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) after the senior Republican on the banking committee, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), dropped out.
Corker said he accepted Dodd's offer to negotiate after considering the potential consequences of an impasse on financial regulatory reform, one of President Obama's top domestic policy priorities. "After what our country's been through over the last year and a half, there are a lot of things we need to correct," Corker said. "If we cannot do financial regulation in a bipartisan way, it's difficult for me to see how we deal with other issues."
The centerpiece of the streamlined Senate jobs package would exempt companies from paying Social Security taxes for the remainder of 2010 on every new worker who had been unemployed for at least 60 days. The proposal is popular among many lawmakers but has also sparked controversy, as some experts have questioned whether it will actually create many jobs for its estimated cost of $13 billion over 10 years.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who authored the payroll tax holiday with Hatch, said it "is not supposed to be a panacea" for the country's longer-term economic woes. "It's supposed to be quick, immediate," he said. "If companies are about to say, 'Hey, maybe I'll hire someone,' this will push them over the edge."
The Senate bill also would provide new transportation infrastructure spending, expanded investment breaks for small businesses and added subsidies for Build America Bonds, a financing program created under last year's stimulus bill to help local governments pay for new schools, courthouses and other public projects.
Among the provisions that Reid delayed, and that are now expected to move as a separate bill, is the renewal of several expiring business tax credits, including the research and development credit, at a total cost of $31 billion. Unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits would be extended by three months, and doctors would receive a seven-month delay in a scheduled rate cut for Medicare patients.
The broader bill included $6 billion in relief for private pension funds that suffered heavy losses in recent years. It also would have extended the USA Patriot Act, the federal flood insurance program and a measure governing satellite television signals.
But those provisions -- in particular, the doctor payments and business tax breaks -- raised concerns among some Democrats that the bill was out of balance, too skewed to the pet interests of lawmakers.
"This is a simplified, focused bill that addresses our core priority: putting millions of Americans back to work," Reid said in a statement. "Each piece of this bill enjoys bipartisan support, and I look forward to swift action on this measure that will create and save dependable jobs."