Having promised a renewed focus on addressing the nation's high jobless rate earlier this year, President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law a $17.6 billion jobs bill, which he said is a start in helping putting Americans back to work.
At a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House, Obama said the measure, which passed by a healthy margin in the Senate, showed Republicans and Democrats could work together in getting new laws passed.
"I hope it is a prelude to further cooperation in the days and months to come, as we continue the work of digging out of this recession and rebuilding our economy in a way that works for all Americans," the president said.
The bill grants employers an exception from the 6.2% Social Security payroll contribution for each worker hired through the end of the year, as long as the employee has been out of work for at least 60 days. Further, businesses can take an additional $1,000 income tax credit for every new employee kept on the payroll for 52 weeks.
The legislation passed by a 68-29 Senate vote Wednesday, with all Democrats except one, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, voting for the measure. Eleven Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Though the Senate passed the bill last week, it moved back to the House of Representatives, which tweaked it, requiring a second Senate vote.
A Rare Moment of Bipartisanship
Other provisions in the bill make it easier for employers to write off equipment purchases and provides a one-year extension on federal transportation funding for highway and mass transit projects. It also transfers $20 billion into the highway trust fund, which helps to make up lost revenue from lower gasoline-tax receipts.
Though small compared to last year's $862 billion economic stimulus package, the bill allows Democrats to show their constituents that the party is moving ahead with tackling the nation's stubbornly high unemployment rate, which has been hovering around 10% since last summer. Long mired in a contentious, partisan debate over health care reform, the bill's passage also shows the parties can coalesce on some issues.
"This is just the first, certainly not the last, piece of legislation that we will put forward in relation to jobs," said the bill's co-sponsor Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "If we don't create jobs, the economy will not move forward." The beauty of the modest bill lies in its simplicity, Schumer said: "It's focused on private-sector job growth, and it's paid-for."
Critics say the bill provides tax cuts and credits to employers who would hire new workers anyway. Some Republicans also counter that the legislation uses accounting sleight of hand to appear that it doesn't add to the nation's $12.5 trillion debt.
"When are we going to stop spending money around here as if there's no tomorrow?" Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told the Associated Press. "Because pretty soon there's going to be no tomorrow for our children as we add this debt to their backs."
The measure the Senate passed last week also contained language that would have extended unemployment insurance and extended a 65% subsidy given to workers who have lost jobs but continue to receive health coverage through their previous employers. The legislation would also extend a variety of tax breaks for businesses and individuals, something that is attractive to lawmakers in both parties.
Both houses of Congress have passed the measure, but how to pay to for at least part of it remains a sticking point. Without consensus soon, Congress will likely have to pass a third temporary extension on jobless benefits, which would otherwise expire at the end of the month.
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