WASHINGTON — The GOP-controlled House passed legislation Friday renewing a payroll tax cut for 160 million workers and jobless benefits for millions more, backing the main items on President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda in a rare burst of Washington bipartisanship.
Under Friday’s measure, workers would continue to receive a two percentage point increase in their paychecks and people out of work for more than six months would keep jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week, steps that Obama says will help support the fragile recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The legislation, passed by a surprisingly large 293-132 vote, would also head off a steep cut in reimbursements for physicians who treat Medicare patients. The tax cuts, jobless coverage and higher doctors’ payments would all run through 2012.
Passage of the legislation also hands Obama a political win over objections from many Republicans who oppose it but were eager to wipe the issue from the election-year agenda. Opposition was particularly strong in the Senate, where Republicans signaled they would allow the measure to pass with a simple majority — instead of the filibuster-proof 60 votes typically required. That was a signal they want the measure to pass but don’t want to vote for it and the $89 billion it would add to the nation’s $15 trillion-plus debt.
Extending the 2 percentage-point cut in the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax would save around $80 monthly for someone earning $50,000 a year and give a maximum cut of $2,200 to high-end earners.
Friday’s vote clears away a political headache for House Republicans, who blocked a two-month extension of the tax cut and jobless coverage in late December, only to retreat quickly under a buzz saw of opposition from conservative and GOP leaders from around the country.
With that history, Republicans seemed ready to get the fight behind them and change the subject for the rest of this election year. And they said the final deal, significantly changed from a tea party-backed measure that passed in December, was the best Republicans could get.
“We don’t control Washington. Democrats still control Washington — they control the Senate and they control the White House,” said Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, the top House negotiators on the measure. “A divided government must still govern.” Camp cited stricter job search requirements for people receiving unemployment benefits and other reforms to the program as wins for conservatives.
But many GOP lawmakers were upset that the measure would add to the federal deficit and doubted that it would do much to boost the economy. Another concern was that it cuts a payroll tax that’s dedicated to paying Social Security benefits. Deficit spending would make up for the lost revenue, but some lawmakers fear it would chip away at the program.
“I cannot and I will not support legislation that extends the payroll tax holiday without paying for it,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican. “This will add $100 billion to the deficit and it will create an even greater shortfall within the Social Security trust fund that already has over $100 billion shortfall just in the last two years.”
And the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, excoriated the measure for cutting the retirement benefits of new federal hires.
“The only individuals paying for this bill out of 315 million Americans are the two million civilian workers who work for us, who work for all of us, who day after day, week after week, month after month,” Hoyer said.
Some Democratic senators were defecting because of cuts the bill would make for civil servants’ benefits and health programs. Many Republicans were opposed because the measure would add $89 billion to federal deficits over the coming decade.
The reduction in the Social Security payroll tax, which is deducted from workers’ paychecks, would cost $93 billion through 2022. In a sudden concession this week that made bipartisan agreement possible, House Republicans dropped their demand that the tax cut be paid for with spending reductions.