The partisan fog stifling the Senate for most of this year lifted slightly Monday evening as senators signaled that they may finally have found a slim part of President Obama’s jobs-stimulus plan they can agree to pass.
In a 94-1 vote, they advanced a bill that would relieve businesses of having the government withhold 3 percent upfront on all government contracts - an $11.2 billion measure that accounts for just 2.5 percent of the president’s full $447 billion proposal, which has stalled during three votes last month.
“This vote is a no-brainer,” said Sen. Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican.
Seeing the bipartisan agreement, Democrats said they’ll push their advantage and try to attach yet another part of the president’s jobs bill that all sides say they want to see: new tax credits to promote hiring of veterans.
Democrats have not said how they intend to offset the lost revenue from those tax cuts, and the GOP is likely to go along with the plan only if it doesn’t include the surtax on million-dollar incomes that helped sink the three earlier jobs bills.
But Mr. Obama, who has been traveling the country stumping for his plans, said Congress’ reputation is riding on whether or not it can pass the veterans legislation.
“Our veterans did their jobs,” Mr. Obama said as he stood with veterans groups in the White House Rose Garden. “Now it’s time for Congress to do theirs.”
The veterans debate is still to come. Monday night’s vote was merely a preliminary step, signaling that lawmakers had agreed to limit the amount of time before they vote to bring the withholding bill to the floor.
Still, that’s further than previous Obama jobs bills have gone in the Senate, where all lawmakers say they want to spur jobs, but they have clashed on where to find the money to pay for more stimulus.
Mr. Obama’s full $447 billion proposal failed to win a majority in the Senate, as did one piece of it that would have funded state and local teachers’ and emergency workers’ salaries. A third bill, which included just infrastructure spending, did win a bare majority of 51 votes, but that was still nine shy of the 60 needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
All three bills were to be funded by imposing a surtax on million-dollar incomes.
The withholding bill, however, is funded by changing the rules for Medicaid eligibility, which should raise enough money to cover the $11.2 billion in revenue that will be lost without the 3 percent requirement.
The 3 percent withholding requirement, passed in 2006 by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bush, was designed to try to make companies pay the taxes they owe. It was supposed to take effect this year.
Since then, however, businesses have said it will stifle jobs, and government agencies said it will cost more to implement than it will save in tax payments. Its effective date has been delayed until 2013.
The House passed a bill on a 405-16 vote last month to repeal the withholding requirement. It also passed a separate bill to change the eligibility requirements for Medicaid, but that vote was more contentious, 262-157. Opponents said it would undo a key part of last year’s health care law that allowed more people to receive Medicaid benefits.
Both bills were combined in the version the Senate is considering, and that measure could become even more complicated depending on how Democrats proceed with the veterans legislation.
The legislation would offer businesses that hire veterans unemployed for at least four weeks a tax credit of up to $2,400. Businesses that hire veterans out of work for six months or more could get a credit of up to $5,600.
Another tax credit would go to companies that hire veterans with service-related disabilities.
With so much of his jobs plan stalled in Congress, Mr. Obama has been trying to take executive action where he can.
On Monday, he directed the Labor Department to begin giving priority assistance to veterans looking for jobs.
Mr. Obama said that about 850,000 veterans are unemployed, and that Congress is shirking its responsibility to create jobs for them.
“If you can oversee a convoy or millions of dollars of assets in Iraq, you can help a business back home manage their supply chain or balance their books,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have not yet seen progress in Congress. Senate Republicans have chosen to block these bills and these proposals.”