Senate Democrats leaped a key hurdle toward passing a scaled-down jobs bill Monday, gaining support from several Republicans -- including the newest GOP senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
The 62-30 vote to block a filibuster represented a victory for beleaguered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who gambled that a handful of Republicans would cross party lines despite a year of partisan warfare.
“I believe this is the beginning of a new day in the Senate,” Reid said after the vote.
Along with a Social Security tax break to encourage businesses to hire workers, the $15-billion package would replenish the depleted Highway Trust Fund, which uses gasoline taxes to repair interstate roads; expand the Build America Bonds program, which helps state and local governments fund infrastructure projects; and allow small businesses to write off large equipment purchases immediately rather than depreciating them over several years.
“The American people want to see Washington put aside partisan differences and make progress on jobs, and today the Senate took one important step forward in doing that,” President Obama said in a statement. “This is one of many efforts we need to tackle our economic challenges, and we will continue to work with Congress on additional job-creation measures.”
Monday’s vote was widely viewed as a test of whether the Senate could pass any significant legislation after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof 60-vote majority with Brown’s election. The chamber has been gridlocked by party-line squabbling for the better part of a year, with virtually every bill requiring a 60-vote supermajority.
In addition to Brown, Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, Missouri’s Christopher S. Bond and Ohio’s George V. Voinovich voted to cut off debate on the jobs legislation, which is likely to pass when it comes to a vote later this week.
Snowe complained that Reid was giving Republicans short shrift by not allowing amendments, but shelved her reservations.
“I was torn, but I thought it was critical to send a message that it is possible for us to work together,” Snowe said. “It’s a confidence-building move.”
Democrats were ebullient that Reid’s gamble paid off, which could open the door for more Republican support on such issues.
“You’re going to see a sea change when it comes to economic issues,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Despite voters’ concern about creating jobs and lowering unemployment, Congress’ response has been in doubt.
This month, Reid rejected a bipartisan $85-billion jobs package in favor of the whittled-down $15-billion bill, angering members of both parties.
Reid, still smarting from criticism during the healthcare debate, was concerned that industry-friendly tax cuts in the larger package would have seemed like a giveaway to special interests. But he has pledged to make this jobs bill the first of several he will bring before the Senate.
Democrats needed two GOP votes to ward off a filibuster because Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is undergoing treatment for stomach cancer. They ended up with five, but lost one of their own: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska sided with the GOP.
The measure includes a provision co-written by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) that would exempt employers who hire new workers from paying the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax for the rest of the year. But Hatch voted against cutting off debate anyway.
In a speech before the vote, Reid focused on Republican opposition to a bill composed of provisions they had supported in the past.
“My friends on the other side of the aisle are looking for ways to not vote for this,” Reid said. “I’ve heard excuses after tired excuses. The American people aren’t buying these excuses. If someone could explain to me what is wrong with this bill, I’d be happy to listen to them.”
Reid particularly focused on recruiting Brown, the GOP conservatives’ new darling, who has insisted that his work in the Senate will be in line with his moderate and progressive constituency back home.
The larger $85-billion bill, developed by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), would have extended a series of business-friendly tax breaks, added further job-creation initiatives and extended the time for jobless workers to receive unemployment benefits and buy COBRA insurance.
Before the cloture vote, Grassley, ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, complained that Reid had shut Republicans out of the legislative process.
“I was under the impression that the Senate Democratic leadership was genuine in its desire to work on a bipartisan basis, but clearly I was mistaken,” he said.
Reid’s incremental approach has risks. It virtually guarantees that each measure will require the same arm-twisting that he was forced to use for the current bill.
And some Democrats, particularly in the House, worry that the result will be a series of minor legislative strokes than do little to spur employment.
In contrast, the House in December passed a $154-billion bill that some critics labeled a “second stimulus.” It contained provisions that some economists maintain are vital to economic growth, including aid to state and local governments to preserve public-sector jobs, increased infrastructure investment, and small-business loan assistance.
Others worry that the Senate will be overly focused on short-term fixes -- such as the Social Security payroll tax holiday -- without rewarding businesses for investment in research and development, technology and transportation.
Jessica Milano, an analyst with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said even with the new incentive, she doubted businesses would hire unless demand for their products increased.
“But I don’t think [businesses] are going to hire,” Milano said. “I’m skeptical they would hire without increased demand just to take advantage of the credit.”