White House considers pre-midterm package of business tax breaks to spur hiring

By Anne E. Kornblut and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 11:06 PM

With just two months until the November elections, the White House is seriously weighing a package of business tax breaks - potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars - to spur hiring and combat Republican charges that Democratic tax policies hurt small businesses, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.

Among the options under consideration are a temporary payroll-tax holiday and a permanent extension of the now-expired research-and-development tax credit, which rewards companies that conduct research into new technologies within the United States.

Administration officials have struggled to develop new economic policies and an effective message to blunt expected Republican gains in Congress and defuse complaints from Democrats that President Obama is fumbling the issue most important to voters. Following Obama's vacation and focus on foreign policy in recent weeks, White House advisers have arranged a series of economic events for the president next week, including two trips to swing states and a news conference.

"We'll continue to do everything we can, understanding that recovery will require persistent effort. There are no silver bullets," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview Thursday. "At the same time, we have to make clear our ideas and theirs, and the fact that the Washington Republicans, having helped create this recession, have attempted to block our every effort to deal with it."

But with the unemployment rate expected to rise again in jobs numbers due out Friday, panic is setting in among many Democratic candidates who fear it is too late for Obama to convince voters that he understands the depth of the nation's economic woes and can fix them.

White House officials cautioned that no tax cuts have been settled on and that a more limited measure could emerge. Policy staffers are debating a range of options. For example, a payroll-tax holiday - a top priority of many business groups - could be applied only to new hires or extended to current employees. It could be limited to small businesses or extended to larger firms.

Timing problems

If administration officials can agree on a policy path, it is not clear that it would be approved in the current environment on Capitol Hill. And even if Congress did approve new measures to bolster the economy, they would probably come too late to make a difference in the lives of recession-weary voters before the midterms.

"Substantively, there is nothing they could do between now and Election Day that would have any measurable effect on the economy. Nothing," said the Brookings Institution's William Galston, who was a domestic-policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Over the past year, with the jobless rate hovering near 10 percent, Obama has repeatedly promised to shift from other matters to the economy. He did so again this week, saying during his Oval Office address on Iraq that he would turn to the economy "in the days to come."

But some Democratic candidates and political operatives feel the president is not doing enough to help them keep control of Congress, privately expressing frustration that Obama has recently emphasized issues other than the economy.

"We did the mosque, Katrina, Iraq, and now Middle East peace?" said a Democratic strategist who works closely with multiple candidates and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And in between you redo the Oval Office? It has become a joke."

Many economists say Obama's policies have been reasonably effective at pulling the nation back from recession. Last year's stimulus package - now estimated to cost $814 billion - protected as many as 3.3 million jobs, according the independent Congressional Budget Office.

Nonetheless, Obama's efforts to give the economy another boost have been stymied since the spring, when members of both parties became keenly aware of rising public concern about the national debt.

Election Day looms

Last November, Obama announced that he would turn his attention to unemployment, calling it "one of the great challenges that remains in our economy." He declared the same intent two months later, telling House Democrats he would focus relentlessly on job creation "over the next several months." Senior aides went on television pledging that the mantra would become "jobs, jobs, jobs."

But other matters - health care, the BP oil spill - continually stole the limelight, creating the impression, some Democrats complain, that the president was barely focused on the economy at all.

His advisers described his attentiveness - noting, for example, that he discussed the economy with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) for 15 minutes before golfing - but got little traction.

"Obviously it's going to be hard to get anything done before the election, but it's really important for him to try, and to make the case to the American people that he's trying to do something and the Republicans aren't letting him," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist. "We are at the final moments here."

Obama has another incentive to act: Tax cuts enacted during the George W. Bush administration are scheduled to expire in January, and Democrats - accused by Republicans of plotting to let them vanish - feel compelled to do something before the midterms.

Obama campaigned on a pledge to let cuts expire for the richest 2 percent of households, but some Democrats say the economy is too weak to raise anyone's taxes right now. And they fear a backlash from small-business owners who could be hit with higher taxes.

Pairing targeted business tax breaks with an extension of middle-class tax cuts could help alleviate those problems.

Permanently extending the research credit would cost roughly $100 billion over the next decade, tax analysts said. And depending on its form and duration, a payroll-tax holiday could cost more than $300 billion. While costing significantly less than last year's stimulus package, both ideas would be far more dramatic than anything the White House has so far acknowledged considering.

More spending on infrastructure, particularly transportation projects, is also under discussion. But it would be easier for a package composed purely of tax cuts to "avoid the stain of a 'bailout' or 'stimulus' label," said one official familiar with the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations were private.

The president could roll out additional measures as soon as next week. Senate leaders hope to begin debating the tax issue in late September.

Obama will speak in the Rose Garden at 10 a.m. Friday after the release of the new jobs numbers.

kornbluta@washpost.com montgomeryl@washpost.com

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