Senate passes $140 billion in tax breaks, aid to unemployed

By Ben Pershing
Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Senate approved a $140 billion package of tax breaks and aid to the unemployed Wednesday, the most substantial effort by the chamber to boost the nation's economy since it passed the stimulus bill last year.

Six Republicans joined 56 Democrats to pass the measure, 62 to 36. The package faces an uncertain future in the House, where Democrats have taken a markedly different approach to the "jobs agenda," as current efforts to pass jobs legislation are known, than have their Senate colleagues.

The Senate's action comes as Republicans continue their attacks on Democrats' stewardship of the economy. While President Obama spoke in St. Louis on Wednesday about combating Medicare and Medicaid fraud, the Republican National Committee released a statement pointing to the number of jobs lost in the United States since the health-care debate began a year ago.

Democrats countered that the bipartisan vote Wednesday meant their agenda was on the right track.

"While our Republican colleagues on health care have been stonewall[ing], on jobs they know that they block us at their own political peril . . . and substantive peril as well," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Obama said in a statement that he was "grateful to senators in both parties who took one more step forward today in getting our nation back on a solid economic footing."

The Senate measure contains one-year extensions of unemployment benefits and COBRA health insurance, plus extra funding to help states pay for Medicaid. The bill would also help struggling private pension funds and block a scheduled cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

Beyond those provisions, the bill carries renewals of several expired tax credits, including those for research and development, biodiesel, energy-efficient home improvements, and the deduction of state and local sales taxes. Those extensions helped attract the support of Republicans and the praise of business groups.

Dorothy Coleman, vice president of tax and domestic economic policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said the research-and-development credit extension will be a particularly effective job creator. "Going ahead and acting on these [tax extensions] gives companies some certainty" about how they can spend money in the future, she said.

Some experts were less impressed with the stimulative properties of the tax extenders, arguing that aid to the unemployed is far more important.

"The single most important thing you can do is [unemployment benefits] and COBRA, because you're providing money to people you know are going to be spending it," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Mishel said that he wouldn't give Congress much credit for creating jobs. "To really move the dial, we're going to have to do much more," he said.

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