Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) have been quietly trying to write a jobs bill that the Senate can act on early next year, underscoring the renewed emphasis Congressional Democrats are putting on the economy as 2009 comes to a close.
House Democrats are rushing to get a similar measure done in their chamber sometime in December, and President Barack Obama recently announced plans to hold a jobs summit at the White House on Dec. 3. The nation’s unemployment rate just hit 10.2 percent, a figure Democrats fear could be damaging to their electoral hopes next year.
Dorgan said this week he hoped to have a bill through the Senate before the president’s State of the Union address in late January and that he does not envision the health care debate tripping up that timeline.
“We’re going to be working on the jobs issue even as the health care bill is on the floor,— he said. “I don’t think that is going to interfere with the effort to get a good jobs package.—
Durbin said he and Dorgan teamed up to write the bill with the blessing of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has been leading the Senate’s push to enact a health care reform bill before Christmas.
Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a close Obama ally, appeared to be mindful of GOP criticism that the Democrats’ emphasis on health care reform in recent months has caused them to overlook the still-weak economy. But Durbin said Democrats can multitask, saying that Reid is “working the health care side of it, but we’re trying to make it clear that we can walk and chew gum. We can move on the jobs issue and be prepared as soon as we come back in the first part of the year to come up with a plan.—
He also said he is working closely with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is helping lead the House effort and lives in the same house as Durbin on Capitol Hill.
“I talked to him about it last night. So we’re going to try to make sure that we end up with similar or the same list,— Durbin said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Durbin and Dorgan hosted a meeting with about 20 Democratic Senators to brainstorm ideas for the bill. The measure would be the second economic stimulus of Obama’s tenure: Congress approved a $787 billion economic package in February.
One Democratic source said Dorgan and Durbin’s goal is to find five to 10 popular proposals that will get the most bang for each federal dollar.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said proposals ranged from “tax incentives to direct spending to [financial industry bailout] money to all kinds of ideas.—
Durbin said the package could be paid for in part by using leftover money in the Troubled Asset Relief Program. More than $200 billion is available to be spent — money either already repaid or never spent in the first place, although the White House has suggested much of that should go toward deficit reduction. Republicans have also called for leftover TARP money to be used to pay down the debt.
But Durbin said shifting that money to a new jobs package could turn around a political trouble spot for Democrats, noting that TARP — better known as the Wall Street bailout — is unpopular with the American public.
“There’s a belief … that TARP is a program that has benefited large banks and now should be used to benefit our overall economy creating jobs and helping community banks,— Durbin said of the consensus of Democratic Senators.
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said the meeting with Durbin and Dorgan had a strong emphasis on paying for more transportation and infrastructure projects, something that also has strong support in the House.
“It’s very clear that there are more things that have to be done,— Conrad said. “And I think a very big emphasis on infrastructure because not only does that create jobs, but it improves the economic efficiency of the country.—
And at least some Republicans have shown interest in an infrastructure-heavy package, with moderate Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) sending a letter to Obama this week urging he push for a new job-creating transportation bill that would be paid for by adding a dime to the gas tax.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have been actively considering paying for their package with a levy on financial transactions so that Wall Street pays to repave Main Street, although TARP money could be tapped as well.