Workers wait on promise of jobs as Obama agenda stalls on Hill

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010

One month after President Obama declared jobs his "number one focus," Congress has been unable to push through a single measure aimed at putting people back to work, as lawmakers haggle over how best to create jobs and how much to spend in the face of soaring budget deficits.

On Friday, Obama's jobs agenda stalled on both ends of the Capitol. In the House, leaders delayed a vote until next week on a Senate plan to extend tax breaks to employers who hire new workers. Liberals called it weak medicine for a 9.7 percent jobless rate, and conservatives said that it would worsen a deficit projected to approach $1.6 trillion this year.

In the Senate, Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) blocked a vote on a House-passed bill that would have extended emergency unemployment benefits past Sunday, arguing that lawmakers should come up with a plan to pay for it. As lawmakers left town for the weekend, more than a million people, by one estimate, were in danger of losing federal aid by the end of March.

Leaders in both chambers hope to return to the issue next week, and aides expressed confidence that a jobs bill in some form would soon be approved. But the intense squabbling over even modest initiatives cast doubt on Democrats' ability to deliver on Obama's request for another big dose of tax cuts and spending, which many economists say are needed to push the recovery into high gear.

"We have to be careful here. We need job creation. . . . At the same time, we're really worried about deficits and too much spending," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently told reporters. Of Obama's request for an additional $267 billion to boost the economy, he said: "Whether we could get something as big as $270 billion through the Senate or even through the House, I just don't know."

The delay of two bills that lawmakers had hoped to have ready for Obama's signature comes as Democrats brace for another round of bad jobs numbers next week. Back-to-back snowstorms that crippled Washington and other cities could dramatically reduce reported payroll employment in February. A Democratic economic analysis found that the blizzard of January 1996 briefly erased 210,000 jobs.

Programs set to expire

Democrats blamed Republicans for the holdup, bashing Bunning for refusing to cut a deal that would have permitted the Senate to extend a variety of programs set to expire Sunday night. Without congressional action, the National Employment Law Project estimates that nearly 1.2 million jobless workers will become ineligible for benefits by the end of March, including more than 4,000 people in the District, 16,000 in Maryland and nearly 22,000 in Virginia. In addition to providing aid for the unemployed, the $10 billion package would have delayed a scheduled 21 percent pay cut for doctors who see Medicare patients.

"These are the types of games that the American people fail to understand. These are the types of instances where, for some reason, one person can throw out all measure of common sense and hurt hundreds of thousands of Americans that have, unfortunately, lost their jobs as a result of this economic downturn," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard said the senator believes that the bill's provisions are important but that the Senate should not abandon its commitment to pay-as-you-go principles weeks after adopting them. He said Bunning offered alternatives, including using unspent funds from last year's $862 billion economic stimulus package, to cover the cost of the jobs package, but could not reach agreement with Democratic leaders.

"Senator Bunning supports this bill. He believes it is essential that it should pass. But the bill must be paid for," Reynard said. "If we can't find $10 billion to pay for something that all 100 senators support, we will never pay for anything."

Congressional Democrats have been quarreling over what form a jobs bill should take. Last year, the House approved a $154 billion package that included new spending on infrastructure and other government programs. But Senate Democrats are reluctant to approve a big spending package and have announced their intention to pursue smaller measures that can win Republican support.

The centerpiece of the bill now pending before the House, a $13 billion payroll tax credit aimed at employers who hire people who have been out of work for at least 60 days, passed the Senate last week with five GOP votes. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring up next week a much larger package that contains $80 billion to extend emergency unemployment benefits for one year and $25 billion to aid strapped state governments. But the measure would also devote $31 billion to revive expired tax breaks supported by Republicans, and it would finance no new job-creation measures.

Push for jobs bill

Many Democrats in the House, meanwhile, are pressing for a more straightforward public jobs program. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said he is working on a proposal to help as many as 140,000 laid-off municipal workers. And members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who balked at approving the Senate jobs bill, are pressing for more money for job training and summer jobs programs, particularly in areas with the highest unemployment rates.

The Senate's payroll tax credit "wasn't a jobs bill," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a leader of the House progressive caucus. "A jobs bill creates jobs on the ground for working Americans. That bill did not do that, and I believe for us to call it a jobs bill would be a mistake."

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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