WASHINGTON — Stung by constituents' concerns about their vanishing or vulnerable jobs, congressional leaders launched a strong push Tuesday to pass a "jobs creation" package by the end of this year.
"It's clear we need to act in a way that does get to creation of job opportunities for people in the short term," said Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., called the effort "an important priority."
The Democratic push comes as lawmakers returned to Washington this week after a Veterans Day recess saying that they found constituents often more concerned with the state of the economy and jobs than anything else.
The October unemployment rate hit 10.2 percent, the highest rate in more than 26 years. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 15.2 million people were unemployed last month, nearly double the number when the recession began in December 2007. About one-third had been jobless for more than 27 weeks.
House leaders have asked committee chairmen to come up with job-creation ideas quickly. Among the ideas being considered: extending unemployment benefits, spending more on highway projects and providing more tax relief for small business.
Democrats also are enduring relentless Republican criticism that they've failed to stem the job losses.
"I say you gotta be kidding me," Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., said when he heard about the jobs push. "They have for months now been about more spending, leaving a wake of deficits in their trail, and now they want to focus on what's important?"
Congressional leaders also hope for momentum from President Barack Obama's upcoming White House jobs meeting Dec. 3 and a cross-country "White House to Main Street" tour starting the next day in Allentown, Pa.
Several hurdles must be cleared before Congress pumps any new jobs-creation money into the economy.
Foremost is concern over the federal budget deficit, which reached a record $1.4 trillion last year and in October, the first month of fiscal 2010, was unexpectedly high at $176.4 billion. The $787 billion economic stimulus, enacted in February, was a key reason for the recent deficit surge.
No one was specific Tuesday on how the new spending would be paid for; House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, of Connecticut, suggested using money that bailed-out financial institutions and auto companies have returned to the Troubled Asset Relief Program. So far, the program has paid out $366 billion and has earned or been repaid $80.5 billion.
Some lawmakers were adamant that sources of revenue must be found.
"We have to be careful thinking we can spend our way out of a recession," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "Any help would have to be very, very targeted."
Any jobs bill faces at least two other problems.
One is politics. Hoyer and other Democratic leaders have been careful not to dub their newest effort a second stimulus bill, aware that constituents have become critical of the first one.
"I wouldn't characterize it as a second stimulus," Hoyer said. "It wouldn't be as broad as that."
The other obstacle is the legislative calendar.
Hoyer wants to finish work by Dec. 18, which is likely for the House, but the Senate hopes to begin debate shortly on overhauling the nation's health care system. That debate is likely to last the rest of the year and probably into next year, so when the Senate might get around to another jobs bill is anyone's guess.
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