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Senate rejects bill to keep teachers, first responders on job

October 20, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro | Washington Bureau
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

Republican-led opposition in the Senate blocked a key element of President Obama’s jobs plan Thursday night — a proposal to send $35 billion to cash-strapped states to keep public school teachers, police and firefighters on the job.

The Senate voted 50-50 on the measure, falling short of the 60 votes it needed to advance. Three Democrats joined all Republicans in halting the bill, which polls have shown is among the most popular elements of Obama’s jobs initiative.

The action was the first in what Democratic leaders promise will be a series of votes this fall as they carve Obama’s $447-billion jobs package into smaller pieces. The proposals would be paid for with a new tax on households earning more than $1 million a year.

Most of the jobs provisions have already run into resistance from Republicans. But Democrats believe the public is on their side and will continue to pressure Republicans, building voting records that will be used to define the candidates in the 2012 campaigns.

Obama stumped for the bill during a three-day bus trip this week, but the outcome in the Senate was increasingly clear, making Thursday’s vote a display of political theatre that will likely replay throughout the fall.

Republicans are fighting the measures because they do not believe such government efforts will help businesses to create jobs in the struggling economy. They also oppose asking those earning beyond $1 million a year to pay more.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the people who are wealthy and comfortable in America should share in the sacrifice with every other American family that sacrifices every day in this tough economy,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader. “We’re trying to make sure we save these jobs and give our students a good education across America in these difficult times.”

Senators also turned back another element of Obama’s jobs package that had been offered by Republicans as a way to find common ground amid the partisan differences. That proposal would repeal a 3% withholding tax on government contractors that is scheduled to begin in 2013.

“There’s no reason in the world our Democratic friends, including the president, should oppose it,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, before the vote. “The president asked us to come together and pass pieces of his bill. Here’s one.”

The 3% withholding tax has been a target for business groups ever since it was tucked into a 2005 tax bill and signed into law during President George W. Bush’s administration. Companies argue that many industries operate on slim margins and cannot afford for the government to take 3% off payments.

The tax has been delayed ever since, and Obama has proposed delaying it again until 2014.

But the White House issued a veto threat over the measure Thursday because of the way Republicans structured the bill, and Senate Democrats led the opposition. The bill fell three votes short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Ten Democrats joined Republicans in supporting it, a sign of its broad appeal.

The main objection from the White House was that Republicans sought to recoup the $11 billion in lost revenue that would have come from the tax by making broad spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, which violates the budget accord reached during the debt ceiling debate this summer.

Democrats were also loathe to hand Republicans a legislative victory. The bill matched one proposed earlier by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is expected to face a tough election next fall.

The teachers measure has proven to be a popular in public opinion polls. Democrats said it would save or create 400,000 public school teacher jobs and thousands of first-responder positions. It would be paid for with a 0.5% tax on incomes in excess of $1 million annually, beginning Jan. 1, 2013.

Still, several Democrats declined to support it, largely opposed to raising taxes and government spending. They were Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who faces a tough election next fall, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut.

lmascaro@tribune.com

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