February Jobs Report Gives to Both Sides

Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:00pm

There’s a rare moment of bipartisan agreement about the latest jobs numbers: a burst of 236,000 new payroll positions were created last month, and the unemployment rate is down two-tenths of a point to a four year low of 7.7 percent.

Throughout the last campaign, reports from the Labor Department produced the same rhetorical standoff month after month: the White House describing a glass cresting above half-full and Republicans lamenting about a glass still more than half-empty. But last week, they both called the February figures good but not great and news that shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign the economy is out of the woods. What the White House and the House GOP leadership didn’t agree on was what should be done to make that happen.

While the Labor Department’s numbers are evidence the recovery is “gaining traction,” top White House economist Alan Krueger said, he also noted that all the data was collected before the sequester took effect. So the job losses that the administration has been warning about (not federal employee furloughs so much as contractor layoffs and the trickle-down effect from them) won’t start to get noticed for another month or longer.

Krueger used his monthly email blast about the jobs numbers to advocate for a “grand bargain” as soon as possible. He wants one to replace the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts for this year (and comparable amounts every year for the next decade) with a package of entitlement curbs, alternative spending cuts and new limits on tax breaks designed to raise revenue. Obama spent much of last week telling his GOP congressional dining companions that he wants to push for such a bargain by July, when the need to raise the debt ceiling will pose the next fiscal deadline once the law that permits any spending at all is enacted later in the month.

Speaker John A. Boehner, meanwhile, said all that’s needed to goose the economy to a faster pace of improvement is to reduce federal spending even more sharply. He reiterated his commitment to winning the House’s blessing week after next for a budget that balances the federal books in a decade without raising taxes.

But Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in an interesting departure from his practice of the past year — and one that points to his new GOP populist positioning — made no mention of the budget wars in his reaction to Labor’s announcement. Instead, he said it was time for Congress to focus on helping the “too many people who want to work but can’t find jobs that match their skills” and the “too many college graduates who can’t find jobs in their field of study.”

To that end, the House is ready to pass one of the majority leader’s top goals, a bill known as the Skills Act to reauthorize a Clinton-era workforce investment statute and  consolidate dozens of federal job-training programs. Senate Democrats, meanwhile are looking for ways to entice the GOP to buy into an increase in the minimum wage.