WASHINGTON — Despite reports of relentless job losses, including Friday's news that payrolls shed 36,000 more positions last month, Congress is having trouble approving significant legislation to create jobs.
"I am frustrated. We are not moving quickly enough to deal with the source of chronic unemployment," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. Many Republicans feel the same way.
The gridlock is the product of several struggles: Disputes over the best policy to create jobs. Concerns about increasing the already huge federal deficit. The lack of bipartisan cooperation. Tension between Democrats in the Senate and those in the House of Representatives. A reluctance even among Democrats to consider a big new stimulus package only a year after approving one that cost $862 billion.
Since Congress began its 2010 session, leaders of both parties have said that job growth is their top priority, but so far, they’ve done nothing significant to address it.
Initially, there was hope for quick action. Unemployment had reached 10 percent last fall, and the House passed a $154 billion jobs package in December that included highway projects and aid to states.
The Senate gave it a cool reception, however. Two and a half months later, senators are slowly working their way through their own $150 billion jobs package. It would provide a long list of tax breaks and aid to states and would extend through the year several expiring government programs, including extra jobless benefits and help for the unemployed with their health insurance. The Senate will be back at it next week.
The lone bright spot on the jobs-bill front was supposed to be a modest $17.5 billion package of tax breaks for small businesses that hire new employees.
Democrats had hoped that it would pass easily and that President Barack Obama could sign it Friday _ the day February’s unemployment numbers were released _ but a House-Senate disagreement stalled the bill. Now the Senate hopes to finish work on it next week.
Even if it becomes law, the bill won’t make much difference; $17.5 billion isn’t much in a $14 trillion economy.
”I don’t think it’s going to have a huge impact,” said Bill Rys, tax counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business, the small-business lobby.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department reported Friday that 14.9 million people were unemployed last month, virtually unchanged from January and up from 12.7 million a year earlier.
Small business is supposed to be the bill’s big beneficiary, but the National Federation of Independent Business and other business groups want more emphasis on boosting consumption, arguing that job-creating incentives are of little value if consumer demand is down. Poor sales have ranked as the top problem in the federation's monthly member surveys for the past year.
The difficulty in getting even the small jobs bill passed illustrates the trouble that other employment bills face.
Republicans and Democrats are increasingly unable to work together, a big problem in the Senate, where Democrats control 59 of the 100 seats, one vote short of the number needed to cut off filibusters. Members of the House and Senate also distrust the methods and motives that prevail in their rival chamber.
“Leadership in the House and the White House is not the enemy. The enemy is the Senate,” Cleaver said.
“It’s like sending a message to outer space: You send things there and nothing comes back,” added Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn.
The House and Senate don't plan votes again until at least Tuesday.
Back home this weekend, lawmakers will fall back on a familiar message: “We have to do things around here incrementally,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “We’ll tell people something is better than nothing.”
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