Jobs Versus Health Care: Washington's Battle Over Priorities

Forget Democrats versus Republicans, the battle taking center stage in Washington right now is between jobs and health care.

Even though President Obama is trying to regain momentum on stalled health overhaul legislation with a bipartisan health summit next week, many lawmakers seem to still to keep the focus on jobs.

Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scaled back the "bipartisan" jobs bill, which came out of the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, to exclude any provisions not relating to jobs creation.

Among the provisions he stripped was one that extended federal subsidies to the unemployed to pay for COBRA health benefits and one that gave laid-off workers three extra months of unemployment insurance.

Reid said he wanted the Senate to vote on the smaller bill so that it would pass quickly and provide a clear message to the American people about the Senate's priorities, and in case you were wondering, it's not health care. "This is a simplified, focused bill that addresses our core priority: putting millions of Americans back to work," Reid said in a statement.

Reid scheduled a Feb. 22 vote for the jobs bill, the day Congress gets back from the President's Day recess, and said the remaining provisions (including the COBRA extension) could be voted on separately by the end of the month.

But some Democratic leaders aren't giving up that easily. They view the COBRA extension as at least solving a temporary health care problem faced by the unemployed. Some are already looking for a way to get the COBRA and unemployment extensions passed, despite strict budget spending limits Congress recently passed and signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 12. That "pay-as-you-go" bill requires Congress to find a way to pay for all its spending. The Democrats are trying to find loopholes in the bill that would allow the health care extensions to be considered "emergency" provisions and therefore not be held to those spending limits, according to a report by The Hill.

In addition, Sen. Tom Harkin, citing a CBO analysis, says extending unemployment insurance would actually create more jobs than at least one of the provisions in the jobs bill—tax credits to employers who hire new workers.

Mertens is a reporter for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.



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