Jobs bill: New Senate math means rough road

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer


WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- The road for another stimulus bill just got tougher following Tuesday's election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in Democratic stronghold Massachusetts.

After health care, Congress' next big priority is to pass something that shows voters in an election year that they're on top of the nation's unemployment scourge.

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But the Democrats' loss of a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate throws hurdles onto an already rocky path toward a new stimulus bill aimed at saving jobs.

Given how controversial the first stimulus package remains, passing a new jobs bill, or "second stimulus," was never going to be easy. Republicans have especially targeted the first stimulus package as a prime example of the kind of big government spending they aim to end.

"There is a reason the nation was focused on this race," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The American people have made it abundantly clear that they are more interested in shrinking unemployment than expanding government. They are tired of bailouts."

Experts and policy analysts say the Republican win in Massachusetts will shore up Republican opposition to anything that looks like big spending.

"I think it'll be very hard," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "Democrats will be under more pressure to pass a jobs bill, because if they don't do something about the economy, voter dissatisfaction will increase. But Republicans are going to be more emboldened not to vote for it." (Democrats scramble on health care - CNN.com.)

The bills: The House passed a $154 billion jobs bill in December, but Senate Democrats are planning to debut their own jobs-creation bill in coming weeks.

The two bills were developed independently but share some components, like infrastructure spending to build roads and bridges, as well as state aid to plug budget holes and keep teachers and police officers employed.

Senate Democrats have been brainstorming in backrooms since last summer to come up with a package that incorporates ideas from all parts of their caucus, according to congressional aides. Party leaders Dick Durbin of Illinois and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have been running the negotiations.

The final package will offer something for the left, like spending for green sector jobs, and something for the right, like tax breaks for small businesses that hire new workers.

On the tax breaks, Senate leadership is considering a proposal that Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., plans to introduce this week incorporating ideas Republicans have touted.

Casey wants to give a one-year payroll tax break to companies that create new jobs offering wages up to $50,300. Small companies would qualify for a 20% tax break and larger companies with more than 100 employees would qualify for a 15% break.

Another way to make a jobs bill more palatable to both fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans is to craft a bill that pays for itself and doesn't add to the deficit. That's a big goal of the jobs proposal, Democratic aides say. But they wouldn't spell out how.

The bill may try to take advantage of money freed up in the budget by the fact that the Troubled Asset Relief Program is coming in under budget.

Wooing Republicans: Will such fiscal carrots be enough to woo any Republicans?

"Small business tax breaks are great," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But when they're basically being used just to get some Republican support and the balance of the proposal is just federal spending, this sounds very similar to the first stimulus plan."

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director, said that the Massachusetts win should send a signal to Democrats to start from scratch on the jobs bill and start working with Republicans. He said Republicans would prefer a bill that focuses more on bigger and more effective tax cuts, like blanket breaks on payroll taxes and capital dividend taxes.

"The landscape has changed," said Holtz-Eakin, who advised 2008 presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. "They're going to have to go back and think about what policies are going to get the Republicans on board."

Indeed, a couple of Republican senators' offices said they can't imagine a Democratic proposal on jobs that could win them over.

"A second stimulus bill, packed with more spending, is the wrong way to approach this," said Jeff Sadosky, spokesman for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas. "Obama's budget has already ballooned the debt. More spending is not the answer."

But Democrats may be able to peel off someone like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of three Republicans who last February voted with Democrats to pass the original stimulus package. But she'd only be game if the jobs bill really didn't add to the deficit, a spokesman said.

"Senator Collins has said that she is open to considering the possibility of a jobs bill but her main concern is how it would be paid for?" said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. "She believes that the debt levels we are accumulating now, and that are projected, are simply not sustainable and pose a considerable threat to the health of our economy." To top of page

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