Reid Tries to Rally Votes for Jobs Bill

Posted October 3, 2011 at 6:33pm

Democrats banded together before recess to block a GOP effort to cut more than $1 billion in federal programs, but that rare show of unity hasn’t yet translated into support for their own president’s jobs bill.

It seems it’s a lot easier to block a Republican plan than to get the Democrats to rally around President Barack Obama. Even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has repeatedly promised to call a vote on the president’s plan, he has slow-walked Obama’s jobs bill amid fractures within his caucus over how to pay for it.

On Monday, Reid pleaded with Republicans and Democrats alike to help him change the jobs bill to their liking, and he asked them not to filibuster it.

“Members should rally behind the common-sense, bipartisan approach of this legislation,” Reid said on the floor. “I’m happy to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to improve this bill, but I hope the obstructionism Republicans employed the last nine months won’t continue.”

Reid scheduled a vote on the China currency bill for this week — a politically safe measure that has Republican support and  that many of his endangered incumbents are eager to vote for — and he indicated Monday that three delayed trade pacts and several appropriations measures would come to the Senate floor before the jobs bill. That may give his caucus more time to coalesce around a floor strategy and would allow Obama more time to try to sell his plan across the nation.

Though the president has been barnstorming the country for the past month with his “pass this bill” mantra, Democratic leaders still need time to not only unify their 53-member caucus, but also to try to pick off Republicans.

“That’s what the next couple of weeks are going to be about,” one senior Democratic aide said. “As important as doing what we can to keep our people happy, we’re going to have to figure out how we get at least 10 Republicans. That’s just simple math.”

As Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told WLS Radio last week, Democrats may not even have the votes for a simple majority at this point.

“There are some Senators who are up for election who say, ‘I’m never gonna vote for a tax increase while I’m up for election, even on the wealthiest people,’” Durbin said. “So, we’re not gonna have 100 percent Democratic Senators. That’s why it needs to be bipartisan, and I hope we can find some Republicans who will join us to make it happen.”

As Reid indicated, Obama’s plan will need tweaks to get the votes, even though Democrats are broadly in favor of the increased infrastructure spending and middle-class tax breaks included in the proposal.

However, Democrats from oil-
producing states, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), oppose cutting tax breaks for oil companies, which is part of the president’s proposed package to pay for his plan. Other Democrats — including incumbent Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), two top targets for the GOP in 2012 — aren’t keen on voting for a tax increase of any kind.

While Republicans could theoretically force a vote to show that there is bipartisan opposition, Democrats could counterpunch by asking where the GOP alternative is.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor indicated Monday that Republicans believe they can support and reject the president at the same time. The Virginia Republican told reporters that he will push for consideration of a series of proposals that are included in Obama’s package, such as a 3 percent withholding provision for government contractors and approval of the three free-trade agreements that are pending. “The all-or-nothing approach is just unacceptable, and I think from a purely practical standpoint, the president has some whipping to do on his own side of the aisle,” Cantor said.

Unlike Cantor, however, Reid is somewhat boxed in by the White House’s desire to have a vote on a large proposal dedicated to creating jobs. If the president’s bill ultimately comes up short in the Senate, Democrats want to make sure it gets the highest number of votes they can muster and then look to the super committee to incorporate as much of the plan as possible.

Another possibility would be for Democrats to move smaller chunks of the president’s bill — such as the expansion of the payroll tax cut — under the theory that it would be harder for Republicans to oppose, but that option would only happen if Democrats have exhausted other strategies.

Taking care of the oil-state Democrats may be the easy part — cutting subsidies for oil companies is a relatively small piece of the overall pie — but finding anything close to $447 billion in offsets that can get a filibuster-proof 60 votes may be an insurmountable hurdle outside of the super committee.

There are a few in the GOP, including Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), the top Democratic target in 2012, who have expressed some interest in the jobs package. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has dismissed it as another big stimulus spending bill paid for by higher taxes.

With time slipping, the pressure is already shifting to the super committee to include hunks of the jobs bill as part of its overall package. The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction may be the best bet for enacting any significant package because the costs would be hidden inside a much larger package of deficit reduction. And stimulus spending could be a big carrot for the White House and Congressional Democrats in lieu of net tax increases.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed the legislative wrangling last week.

“I’m not aware of any Democrat who doesn’t support the provisions that go to creating jobs, reducing taxes and that sort of thing. … If there are other ways to pay for this that are fair, that do not put burdens on the middle class unfairly or seniors … we absolutely are willing to look at that,” Carney said.

Reid hasn’t been eager to hold votes showing off his party’s divisions. He pulled the plug on doing a budget resolution for the second straight year for that reason.

Still, the jobs bill is different — it’s the president’s top priority, and with Obama continuing to pressure Congress, Reid can’t stall forever.

Carney, at least, is banking on that. He promised to buy beer for the press corps if the bill isn’t acted on by the end of the year.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.