By Ben Pershing
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; A04
The Senate headed toward passage Wednesday morning of a $15 billion jobs bill amid hope that the measure could provide a blueprint for other items on President Obama's agenda.
The legislation is the first element of what Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said will be a multipart "jobs agenda." The measure includes a new program that would give companies a break from paying Social Security taxes on new employees for the remainder of 2010. It also carries a one-year extension of the Highway Trust Fund, an expansion of the Build America Bonds program and a provision to allow companies to write off equipment purchases.
The next stop is the House, where Democratic leaders are weighing whether to pass the Senate version or go to conference to reconcile it with the $154 billion jobs bill the House passed in December.
Wednesday's likely passage of the Senate bill was made possible by five GOP defections on a procedural vote Monday -- from two retiring senators from the economically depressed Midwest and three New Englanders seeking to maintain a foothold in a region where Republican officeholders have grown scarce in recent election cycles.
Freshman Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) grabbed the headlines, deciding on the first big vote of his new career to side with Democrats and the two GOP moderates from Maine, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe.
Just days after Brown was greeted rapturously by attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference, his vote on the jobs measure made Reid "very happy," the majority leader said. Reaction on the right was less complimentary.
One leader of the "tea party" movement has taken to calling the freshman "Benedict Brown," and disillusioned conservatives filled Brown's Facebook page with accusations that he was a "Judas" and a "sellout."
Democrats recognized early that Brown's vote could be in play, given the message of independence he projected during his special-election campaign to succeed the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D). Reid called Brown to lobby him and was increasingly confident as the vote approached that the chamber's newest Republican would be willing to cross the aisle.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to criticize Brown for his vote. "The Republican Party represents all parts of the country, different points of view," McConnell said during a news conference. "We don't expect our members to be in lockstep on every single issue, and we're happy to have him here."
The votes of Collins and Snowe are frequently targeted by Democrats, and while neither senator said after the tally that she had been promised anything, both are eager for future jobs bills to include tax breaks and help for small businesses.
Retiring Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) was more specific, announcing Monday that he had agreed to back the jobs measure after getting a "commitment" from Reid that the Senate would take up a long-term reauthorization of the highway bill in 2010.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who is also not running for reelection, cited the bill's funding for transportation projects in explaining his decision to side with Democrats. During Monday's tally, Bond waited until the end to record his vote, not wanting to be the 60th "aye."
Democrats welcomed the result, suggesting that it could be a model for future endeavors.
"Several of those ideas were Republican ideas, so it's nice to see that there are Republicans who are willing to not follow blindly their leadership in their overall goal of filibustering," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she had helped rally support for the measure from the transportation industry. She said the lessons of Monday's vote were that Democrats "should keep our bills very clear" and should make sure that "the American people who are involved in these issues get on the phone with their senators."
Republicans contend that the jobs bill's lessons are not applicable to health-care reform or other, more ambitious legislation.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the measure attracted support from his side of the aisle because it is modest.
"There are plenty of opportunities for bipartisan cooperation," he said. "Where we have trouble are these great big, comprehensive, 2,000-page, full-of-surprises, turn-the-country-upside-down pieces of legislation that cost so much. If the administration would stop biting off more than it could chew, I think we would have more progress."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said the level of crossover support in the future would be based on whether Reid is willing to allow Republicans to help shape bills and offer amendments on the floor.
"I think it's going to depend on the nature of the bill and on whether he's going to try to freeze out the minority party," Cornyn said, adding that he would advise against reading too much into Monday's vote: "Frankly, I just don't think it was all that big of a deal."