House Democratic leaders sent mixed signals Friday on a new jobs bill supported by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, further complicating plans to quickly pass election-year legislation addressing huge job losses.
Senate Democrats scrapped a bipartisan jobs bill Thursday in favor of one they say is leaner and more focused on putting Americans back to work, all but daring Republicans to vote against it. Now, they might have to dare House Democrats to vote against it as well.
If the Senate passes the new bill, it will put House Democrats on the spot to hand President Barack Obama a badly needed political victory while addressing the biggest economic issue facing the country — the loss of 8.4 million jobs since the start of the recession. Supporters hope nervous lawmakers facing congressional elections in November, and an unemployment rate just below 10 percent, will feel obligated to support a jobs bill.
Reid wants to quickly pass the bill after Congress returns from a weeklong break Feb. 22.
House Democrats were at odds over the pared-down Senate bill. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he could live with it, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said she wants to pass key provisions of a much broader House-passed bill centered more on spending than tax cuts.
Pelosi issued a statement Friday saying she would work with Reid, but she said she wants to salvage parts of the House bill, including $27 billion in aid to states, mainly to save teachers' jobs.
Hoyer gave a different assessment.
"The answer is yes," he said when asked whether the House would support a scaled-back Senate bill.
"We feel it's very important to pass a bill which will help expand the economy and grow jobs, so we'd be very inclined. If the Senate can pass something, we're going to pass that, and we know we can pass that," he told reporters Friday in Annapolis, Md.
Tax break for hiring
The new Senate bill features tax breaks for businesses that hire unemployed workers or buy new equipment, along with funding for highway programs and local infrastructure projects. The $174 billion House bill didn't include a tax break for hiring workers because House Democrats were skeptical that it would create many jobs.
Republicans, who said Reid blindsided them when he abruptly nixed the bipartisan Senate bill, are unlikely to offer much help, jeopardizing a brief attempt at bipartisan lawmaking.
Reid, D-Nev., put forward the pared-back $35 billion plan — combining about $15 billion in tax provisions with a $20 billion cash infusion into highway and transit programs — Thursday after Senate Democrats balked at a broader, $104 billion bill stuffed with unrelated provisions sought by lobbyists for business groups and doctors. His maneuver blew apart an agreement with key Republicans such as Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who worked with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., for weeks to produce a bill containing the extra provisions.
The White House predicted the scaled-back measure would still get support from both parties because its provisions have wide support. "I think you're going to have bipartisan votes because they're working together on ideas that appeal to both Democrats and Republicans," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Reid willl need at least one GOP vote to prevail in a filibuster challenge.
The centerpiece of his new bill is a $13 billion payroll tax credit for companies that hire unemployed workers. The idea, pushed by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would exempt businesses hiring unemployed workers this year from the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax for those hires.
It also would provide an additional $1,000 tax credit for workers retained for a full year and deposit an additional $20 billion into the federal highway trust fund — money that would have to be borrowed. There's also $2 billion to subsidize bond issues by state and local governments for large infrastructure projects.