Senate jobs bill a show of bipartisanship

In a rare move toward bipartisanship, Senate Democrats prepared Tuesday to unveil an $85-billion jobs bill that would include payroll tax breaks for employers who create new jobs, aid to small businesses and other GOP-backed ideas to attack unemployment.

After more than a year of relentlessly partisan conflict in which Republicans complained of being excluded from drafting the healthcare bill and Democrats denounced them as the “party of no,” senior members of both parties were working to blend their ideas on an issue voters seem to care far more about -- jobs and job security.

Outlines of the bill emerged as President Obama spent about two hours with congressional leaders in an effort to coax green shoots of bipartisanship as the capital braced for another paralyzing winter storm.

The president said both parties must be prepared to compromise, regaining a sense of purpose that transcends petty politics as they tackle unemployment and other major issues.

“Bipartisanship depends on a willingness among both Democrats and Republicans to put aside matters of party for the good of the country,” Obama said. “I won’t hesitate to embrace a good idea from my friends in the minority party, but I also won’t hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that’s rooted not in substantive disagreements, but in political expedience.”

How long even symbolic gestures of bipartisanship would last was unclear.

The parties are still approaching each other warily. That was illustrated when House Republican leaders Monday sent a blistering letter to the White House that threatened to torpedo Obama’s proposed healthcare summit Feb. 25. On Tuesday, Obama fired back at Republicans blocking his nominees to federal positions, saying he would use a procedural tactic to bypass the legislators.

Still, even an approach to seeking common ground was notable, especially in the Senate, where Republicans had appeared to be reveling in their newfound power to undermine Democratic initiatives.

Democrats embraced some GOP-backed ideas, including new help for small businesses, which in the past have led the way toward recovering lost jobs.

According to a draft outline of the bill circulated by Senate Democrats, the cornerstone would be a proposal to give businesses that hire unemployed workers this year an exemption from the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax. If they keep those workers more than a year, employers would get an additional $1,000 tax credit per employee.

Other provisions of the bill are, for the most part, expansions or extensions of existing policies. The tax break for new equipment purchases by small businesses would be increased. The bill expands the Build America Bonds program, which subsidizes interest costs for state and local bonds issued to finance infrastructure projects. It extends until May 31 unemployment payments and healthcare subsidies for the jobless, which otherwise would expire for many people at the end of the month.

Few Republicans had seen the proposals Tuesday and bridled when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped the Senate would pass the bill by the end of the week. But that was unlikely because of the approaching snowstorm.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not endorse the emerging bill, but neither did he shoot it down.

“The sooner we could get the parameters of the final package the better,” McConnell told Reid.

There have been some signs of greater room for agreement on a jobs bill of late, if only because unemployment has emerged as a top concern of voters that politicians of both parties believe they ignore at their peril.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been working with Republicans privately on jobs proposals involving tax policy. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has teamed with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to draft the proposed payroll tax break.

Outside Capitol Hill, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has bitterly opposed the healthcare bill and other big-ticket items on the Democratic agenda, has signaled willingness to work with Obama on some points of economic policy.

Work on the Senate bill was well underway before Reid and other leaders went to the White House on Tuesday. The meeting had its testy moments, according to a GOP source briefed on the meeting who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Both Republican leaders in the meeting -- McConnell and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) -- called on Obama to shelve the current healthcare reform plans and start fresh, giving GOP lawmakers a seat at the table for those discussions.

Boehner reportedly said that concern over Democratic policies -- tax increases, healthcare overhaul and global warming legislation -- was hurting the economy.

“This got under the president’s skin,” the GOP source said, quoting Obama as retorting, “You just want to kill all of these bills.”

Not long after emerging from the meeting, Obama unexpectedly took over his press secretary’s daily briefing, declaring that he can set aside some Democratic “preferences” on some issues but warned that Republicans would have to make sacrifices, too.

“That’s why I’m going to continue to seek the best ideas from either party as we work to tackle the pressing challenges ahead,” the president said. “I am confident, for example, that when one in 10 of our fellow citizens can’t work, we should be able to come together and help business create more jobs.

“What I won’t consider,” he said, “is doing nothing in the face of a lot of hardship across the country.”