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Road Map: Majority Wrestles With Jobs Strategy

How many jobs bills does it take to save the Senate Democratic majority? It depends on who you ask.

[IMGCAP(1)]Democratic leaders are certainly entertaining the idea of passing four or five bills this year that are aimed at job creation. But the problem is, they haven’t gotten the first one out of the box yet.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) have been soliciting Member ideas for a jobs bill for months and vetting those suggestions with relevant committee chairmen, and they had whittled the list down to a mix of tax credits, government spending and other job-creating incentives. But Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently let leaders know that he may want his panel to mark up portions of that package — such as tax incentives — that fall within Finance’s purview.

Though Senate leaders had already been planning to pivot from health care reform to jobs and the economy before their stunning defeat in last week’s special Senate election in Massachusetts, the loss of their filibuster-proof majority in the chamber has made them all the more desperate to prove to voters that they are focused on reducing the 10 percent unemployment rate.

As the plans for a “jobs— bill were being crafted last year, Senate Democratic leaders did not originally envision pushing their first jobs bill through any committee, because Durbin and Dorgan’s efforts were designed to be a de facto committee of the entire caucus. In fact, committee chairmen were asked to have their staffs vet proposals under their panels’ jurisdictions.

So several Senate Democratic sources said a Finance markup and the potential for a separate Finance bill were gratuitous. And, they said, waiting for committee members to approve a measure could prevent the Senate from quickly redirecting attention to the jobs issues.

Plus, Baucus runs the risk of further inciting the ire of liberals who felt he wasted a lot of time last year pursuing an ultimately elusive bipartisan deal on health care.

But one Finance aide cautioned that Baucus is not working at cross-purposes from the leadership and that the decision to hold a markup on a jobs measure has not been made.

“We all intend to move quickly to improve our economy and increase job growth,— the aide said.

The Finance aide added, “Finance is working hand in glove with the leadership and committee chairs to produce ideas to get our economy back on track. Like a number of other committees, we were asked to come up with job ideas and, like those other committees, we took that request seriously. This is us being a team player and pulling our oar in the greater job creation boat.—

Democratic sources said it’s possible leaders might try to move a separate jobs package if Baucus insists on asserting his committee’s jurisdiction, but they said it is more likely the two pieces would be merged into a single measure. If that bill did not draw enough support from both Democrats and Republicans to reach the filibuster-proof 60-vote mark, it might be broken into smaller pieces, one source said.

Either way, Democratic leaders have already given up on trying to bring up a jobs package next week, because they have not decided on all the elements it will encompass, according to another source.

Instead, any jobs bill debate would likely be pushed to after the Presidents Day recess. Democrats said they might be able to unveil their block of initial proposals to the caucus as soon as this week, however.

Other jobs packages with longer-term impacts would likely show up later in the year, sources said.

“This will not be a one-and-done situation,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “We will do some kind of job-creating bill every single session.—

As of press time, Senate leaders were still meeting to discuss the future of the jobs package(s) as well as health care reform and other 2010 agenda items. Aides cautioned that no decisions had been made prior to that meeting.

But the idea of doing multiple jobs bills is appealing to Democrats as they seek to challenge the public perception that they took their eye off the sagging economy and jobless rate to focus on a divisive and controversial health care bill last year. The imperative to change that perception became even more urgent given that Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) win last week makes it near to impossible for the Senate to pass a health care conference report.

Additionally, Senate Democrats said passing several bills would prevent any one measure from being rejected by centrists and Republicans on the basis of sticker shock alone.

“We hope to attract bipartisan support,— said the senior Senate Democratic aide. “The subhead to that is trying to keep our moderates from imploding and keeping the costs to a reasonable level.—

That could be important considering the bailout fatigue of both Members and voters and the relentless GOP attacks on last year’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill.

House Democrats passed a large jobs package last year, but Senate leaders have insisted on moving their own measures, in part to ensure that vulnerable Democratic Senators get credit for proposals in the bills.

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