Senate easily approves jobs bill; House passes health-insurance antitrust bill
Thursday, February 25, 2010
The Senate easily approved a $15 billion jobs bill Wednesday that would give tax breaks to companies for hiring new employees, one of two legislative victories that showcased a new Democratic strategy of winning Republican support by advancing popular measures.
The jobs bill passed 70 to 28, with 13 Republicans joining 57 Democrats. Only one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), voted against it.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the vote was a welcome change after "so much gridlock," and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was "optimistic that this show of bipartisanship signals a renewed spirit of working together to solve our shared challenges."
The bill now goes to the House. It is the first piece of major legislation to win approval in the Senate since the passage on Christmas Eve of the health-care overhaul, which was upended last month when the election of Scott Brown (R-Mass.) cost Democrats their filibuster-proof supermajority.
Frustrated by Republican opposition on key bills and eager for concrete accomplishments to show voters, Democrats are focused on pushing the minority to take a stand on popular measures, including the jobs bill and House legislation aimed at repealing the health-insurance industry's decades-old antitrust exemption.
The House measure passed Wednesday 406 to 19, with most Republicans joining all Democrats in voting for the legislation.
Before the vote, Republican leaders circulated a memo saying Democrats were pursuing the repeal because of "political calculations, rather than substantive reasons." Even so, wary of being tagged as too close to the insurance industry, the GOP did not organize its members to oppose the measure.
Although President Obama has said he supports the repeal, Senate aides said the chamber is focused on passing a comprehensive health-care bill and is unlikely to take up the antitrust measure soon.
Health insurance companies are regulated by state governments to prevent collusion, price-fixing and other anti-competitive behavior, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said last year that repealing the exemption would not significantly reduce premiums.
As of Wednesday night, House leaders had not settled on a strategy for proceeding on the jobs bill. Democratic aides said the most likely scenario was that the House would pass the Senate bill this week, although some representatives have expressed reservations about that approach. The House passed a $154 billion jobs bill in December.
Five Senate Republicans helped Democrats overcome a procedural hurdle on the jobs bill Monday, and eight more crossed the aisle Wednesday: Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), James M. Inhofe (Okla.), George S. LeMieux (Fla.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Roger Wicker (Miss.).
Brown, who drew criticism from some conservatives for siding with Democrats on the bill Monday, said after its passage that he "supported this measure because it does contain some tax relief that will help Massachusetts businesses put people back to work."
The centerpiece of the jobs measure is a $13 billion program to give companies a break from paying Social Security taxes for the remainder of the year on new employees. If those workers remain on the payroll for at least a year, their employers would also get a $1,000 tax credit. In addition, the Senate bill includes a one-year reauthorization of the highway trust fund, which allows companies to write off equipment purchases, and an expansion of the Build America Bonds program.
The highway money could cause problems in the House, where some members have complained that the Senate bill's funding formula unfairly benefits a handful of states.
Some moderate House Democrats -- and many Republicans -- are also concerned that the jobs measure violates recently enacted "pay as you go" budget rules because only a portion of its spending and tax credits is offset.
Senate leaders are working to craft the next piece of what Reid is calling a "jobs agenda." The two parties are negotiating the parameters of a second package that could reach the Senate floor next week.
It would include year-long extensions of unemployment insurance, COBRA health benefits and a variety of expiring tax breaks, as well as a "fix" to prevent a scheduled cut in physician payments under Medicare. Because some of those programs expire Sunday, the Senate was moving Wednesday toward approving one-month extensions of some items.