It took less than two weeks for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to vote to break rules requiring that new spending be offset elsewhere in the budget, waiving the requirement just minutes before a strong bipartisan majority pushed through a $15 billion job-creation bill in the Senate on Wednesday.
The bill provides money to continue funding highway construction and offers a tax break for businesses that hire unemployed workers. Given the state of the economy, supporters said, the bill was too important to hold up.
“This is a good bill, it’s a focused bill, it’s a modest bill, but it will do some good for the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions who are looking desperately for work,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who crafted the payroll tax break.
But opponents - mostly Republicans - said the bill doesn’t do enough, shuts out other Republican ideas and violates the recently passed pay-as-you-go, or “pay-go,” spending rules.
“I’m just not sure how you vote for this bill when it violates that rule, which you just voted for two weeks ago,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican. “It just seems to be a bit of inconsistency that’s hard even for a political institution to justify.”
The Senate bill still must be merged with a far larger $155 billion bill approved by the House of Representatives late last year.
Still, its passage marks a victory for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who used tough parliamentary tactics. He scrapped a broader, bipartisan bill and blocked all amendments, daring Republicans to vote against a measure pitched as a job-creating bill.
His gamble worked, and the bill attracted broad bipartisan support, passing on a 70-28 vote. Republicans provided 13 of the votes for passage.
Hours later, Mr. Reid introduced a bill to create a nonprofit travel promotion agency, which he trumpeted as a jobs generator for the tourism industry. The bill would impose a $10 fee on some foreign travelers and use the money to promote tourism in the U.S. Foreign governments have said they’ll retaliate with their own fees.
Mr. Reid has scheduled a Friday vote to head off a potential filibuster, and again used parliamentary tactics to block all amendments.
The $15 billion jobs bill had to overcome a potential filibuster on Monday, then faced the fight over budget rules Wednesday.
Pay-go rules were designed to enforce spending discipline on Congress and the administration. They require that new spending be matched by compensating savings elsewhere, in both the short term and long term. Backers say the jobs bill was paid for over 10 years, but because of the way the funding was structured, it would produce a $12 billion deficit in the first five years.
Senators voted 62-34 to waive the spending rules, surpassing the 60-vote threshold. Six Republicans joined two independents and all but one Democrat in voting to break the rules.
The Senate Republicans’ campaign committee fired off press releases attacking four Democrats up for re-election this year, including Mr. Reid, for ignoring the rules.
But Mr. Reid, who is struggling in his own re-election campaign, basked in the victory and the bipartisan vote, and said the measure could be responsible for 1 million jobs by extending the government’s highway-building program.
“Senate Democrats are serious about putting America back to work. I’m encouraged that we were able to pass this fully paid-for, bipartisan bill that will provide an important boost to businesses in Nevada and all across the country and help them hire more workers,” Mr. Reid said.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the Republicans who voted to waive the rules, said he would not accept a lecture from colleagues who voted for the Wall Street bailout.
“The main thing here that I’m concerned about is we keep doing nothing about roads and highways and infrastructure in America, and that’s what we are supposed to do,” said Mr. Inhofe, who is the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees public works projects.
Democrats pushed through the pay-go rules last month just before Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican, was sworn in as a senator. If Mr. Brown had been in office, Democrats might not have been able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the rules, which were attached to a measure that raised the country’s borrowing limit.
President Obama signed the change into law Feb. 12 and, a day later, lectured Congress to heed the restrictions.
“This rule is necessary, and that is why I am pleased that Congress fulfilled my request to restore it,” he said in his weekly radio address.
Mr. Brown initially voted against waiving the rules, but then switched his vote and joined Democrats and the handful of Republicans to back the extra spending. With the House and Senate now poised to produce a compromise bill, Mr. Brown said he might switch back if the changes are too drastic.
Mr. Brown said he sees the bill as a tax-cutting measure, “but if it comes back to the Senate full of pork, waste, fraud and abuse, I reserve the right to vote against it.”