As Obama presses passage of his jobs bill, Congress shrugs

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 30, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Congress is highly unlikely to approve the massive jobs package that President Barack Obama has been pushing relentlessly from coast to coast, day after day, for almost a month.

Republicans don't like its proposed tax increases. Some Democrats are reluctant to endorse another cut in Social Security taxes; others are wary of oil and gas tax hikes. And Obama's low approval ratings, the most dismal of his presidency, are making it hard for him to build any momentum.

When Capitol Hill lawmakers return Monday from a weeklong break, the first order of business in the Democratic-run Senate won't be the president's $447 billion jobs package — despite his daily demands to pass it now — but legislation dealing with Chinese currency manipulation.

"We'll get to that," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said of the jobs plan, which he says he supports. "But let's get some of these things done that we have to get done first."

In the House of Representatives, the Republican majority won't accept Obama's proposed tax increases.

"I can't really make sense of why the president thinks he should be doing this," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

The president introduced his economic rescue plan to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8, an unusual forum for launching such an initiative. Since then, he's traveled the country and given interviews to local news media insisting on its quick approval.

The package includes aid for cities and towns, help for school and road construction projects, Social Security payroll tax cuts and assistance for the long-term unemployed. A series of tax increases, notably limiting tax deductions for the wealthy, would offset the cost of the measure.

Press Secretary Jay Carney said this week that the White House wants the plan to pass intact, but he also said Obama was prepared to accept only pieces of it being enacted.

The plan, though, has become the latest chapter in a vicious political struggle that's raged since Obama became president in January 2009.

He's gotten virtually no Republican support for any of his major initiatives. In the last six months, partisan budget disagreements have twice created threats of partial government shutdowns and nearly caused a historic government default on its debt.

Despite talk from GOP leaders that they hope to find common ground on jobs — talk that hasn't resulted in any serious negotiations with Democrats — Republicans see opposing Obama as good politics.

"The Republicans have no stake in handing the president a victory in the next 12 months," said Gary Jacobson, a congressional expert at the University of California San Diego.

Of course, Obama's public campaign for his jobs bill is, in effect, the opening round of his re-election campaign.

"It's important that the president have a jobs bill. You have to address critical issues in voters' minds," said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at Washington's Brookings Institution, a center-left research center.

The White House needed to rally the Democratic base — which is upset about this year's two budget compromises and the August debt-reduction deal, which cuts spending dramatically — behind a classic Democratic economic plan.

"The president is really laying down the gauntlet to Congress. If Congress doesn't act, he'll have a perfect campaign issue," West figured.

Congress is unlikely to act.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, D-Conn., formally introduced the legislation Sept. 21. So far, it has no House co-sponsors, though Democratic leaders say it has strong party support.

The Senate will turn Monday to the bipartisan currency bill, which would make it easier to penalize countries that keep the value of their currencies artificially low, notably China. Supporters maintain that the bill will help create more American jobs, since it would permit retaliatory tariffs on products from offending countries, making it easier for U.S. firms to compete.

Sometime later in October the Senate is expected to take a test vote on whether to debate Obama's jobs bill. Reluctant Democrats can safely vote yes, since they'll be voting only to proceed, rather than endorsing the measure itself. The effort is expected to fail, since it would need 60 votes and Democrats control only 53 seats.

The next step would be to consider pieces of the president's jobs plan. Obama proposes to slice the payroll tax, now 6.2 percent for employers and 4.2 percent for individual incomes below $106,800, to 3.1 percent. He argues that that would put more money into people's pockets and thus spur the economy, and would provide an incentive for employers to hire by reducing their costs.

Liberals worry that further payroll tax cuts will undermine Social Security's finances. In addition, protested Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., "it's not putting anybody back to work."

Other Democrats are leery about the jobs package for different reasons.

"The oil-producing state senators don't like eliminating or reducing the subsidy for oil companies," Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois told WLS Radio in Chicago this week.

"There are some senators who are up for election who say, 'I'm never going to vote for a tax increase while I'm up for election, even on the wealthiest people,' " he said. "So we're not going to have 100 percent Democratic senators" supporting the president's plan.

Getting anything through the Senate requires bipartisan support, and that will only grow more difficult in the weeks ahead. The House is expected next week to approve a stopgap funding bill that would keep the government running through Nov. 18. In mid-November, another partisan spending showdown is possible, which could halt all other business.

On Nov. 23, the 12-member "supercommittee" that aims to cut at least $1.2 trillion in budget deficits over the next decade must report its recommendations to Congress, which then will have a month to act. That, too, is likely to feature partisan confrontation over taxes and spending options, which won't help build bipartisan support for Obama's jobs plan.

ON THE WEB

White House jobs plan

McInturff analysis of political mood

Treasury Department debt report

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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