WASHINGTON — The Senate Wednesday passed a $137.9 billion package aimed at helping jobless people get more benefits and businesses to hire more workers, but only after controversy about the bill's cost and impact. The rare bipartisan vote was 62 to 36.
Some experts hailed the measure as an important stimulus.
"We're starting to talk real money," said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group.
Conservatives, however, insisted that the bill's cost was a big, unnecessary price to pay. It would add an estimated $100 billion or more to the government's record deficits.
"I can no longer stand by, even on a bill such as this, and vote for it when it is going to add $100 billion to the debt," said Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put it another way: "Whatever savings they allege will occur under (the Democrats') health care bill over the next 10 years is going to be gone as soon as this bill passes."
The bill's lengthy legislative saga illustrates why it's so hard to take strong steps to trim the nation's $12.55 trillion debt and reduce the 9.7 percent national unemployment rate. Congress still has passed no major job-creation legislation this year, despite pleas from President Barack Obama and leading congressional Democrats to move quickly.
Still stalled is a separate $17.5 billion plan that includes tax breaks for small businesses that hire new workers. The Senate might consider that bill later this week.
Wednesday's legislation passed only after the Senate voted, 66 to 33, to limit debate. The final vote saw rare bipartisan support, as the bill was backed by six Republicans, 54 Democrats and two independents. Some 35 Republicans and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., voted no.
The measure, which still needs approval by the House of Representatives — which could take some time — largely would extend programs that normally would have been funded last year. Its progress was stymied as the Senate became embroiled in the health care debate and concerns about the deficit mounted.
The bill would provide extra unemployment benefits for people out of work. In hard-hit states, workers could qualify for up to 99 weeks of aid. The higher a state's jobless rate, the more benefits a laid-off worker could receive. The cost is estimated at $70 billion over 10 years.
Also in the bill is about $25 billion to help states with the cost of Medicaid, the state-federal health program for lower-income people, through June 30, 2011.
The bill also would extend at a cost of $11 billion over 10 years the government subsidy for health care coverage for laid-off workers.
The measure also includes a lengthy list of tax breaks for different industries, most aimed at spurring job creation, as well as changes in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
Few senators seemed satisfied with the bill. Liberals thought it didn't go far enough, and they pushed to include a special $250 payment to seniors, veterans and disabled people. Seniors got a $250 payment last year as part of the big $862 billion economic stimulus bill.
"I have heard from seniors who have turned off the heat in their homes because oil prices are so high. I have heard from others who are splitting pills and skipping doses because they cannot afford to refill a prescription," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
The Senate rejected that $13 billion plan by 50 to 47, after hearing concerns from economists that the payment wouldn't provide a significant economic boost.
Still, Democratic leaders used the bill's passage to insist, as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., declared, that there's been "an official shift in the Democratic legislative agenda. We have job creation as the top goal."
An hour later, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., backed by local officials from around the nation, announced a new initiative, a $100 billion plan to help local governments create and save more government jobs.
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