Obama Lauds Senate Jobs Vote

President Obama is calling the Senate's advancement of a $15 billion jobs bill "an important step forward." The House has already passed similar legislation, so the bills will need to be reconciled before Obama can sign it into law.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Congressional leaders say they could have a jobs bill on President Obama's desk within days. A $15 billion bill cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate yesterday. And lawmakers are expected to vote on it tomorrow. But the bill is a lot less ambitious than one passed by the House in December. And to tell us what is in this bill and what it's supposed to do, we're joined now by NPR's Jim Zarroli. Hi, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And the bill is supposed to address the weak jobs market. How would it actually do that?

ZARROLI: Well, the most important thing it would do would be to create a temporary payroll tax holiday for employers who hire unemployed people. So, if you hire someone who's been out of work for 60 days or more, you don't have to pay the 6.2 percent payroll tax on that employee for a year. Then the bill does a few other things. It reauthorizes the Highway Trust Fund. But the payroll tax holiday is the most important thing in the bill.

SIEGEL: Well, the unemployment rate is now 9.7 percent. How much of an impact can a payroll tax holiday have on the job market?

ZARROLI: You know, it's hard to know what their impact is in this sense. Let's say an employer decides to sign up for the program and hire somebody, how do you know that that employer wouldn't have hired the person anyway?

Now, the Congressional Budget Office has looked into this and has estimated that it will create about 234,000 jobs, which might sound like a lot, but we have lost more than eight million jobs since the recession began. On the other hand, I think, you know, if you're one of those 234,000 people...

SIEGEL: Yeah, if it's your job, sure.

ZARROLI: Yeah, it's a pretty neat bill.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The House passed its own jobs bill in December. How does that legislation differ from the Senate version? And what happens to the House bill now?

ZARROLI: Well, the two have to be reconciled. The House bill does a lot more. It's 10 times as big. It had, you know, provisions it has provisions to encourage small business lending, has money for infrastructure spending. But in the week since that bill was passed, you, of course, had the Massachusetts Senate race, which has changed the political dynamic. There's been a lot of anger and conflict in the Senate about what kind of jobs bill should be passed. When Indiana Senator Evan Bayh said he was not going to run for reelection a couple of weeks ago, he actually cited the jobs bill as one of the things he was unhappy about.

In the midst of all this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came up with this much smaller, stripped down legislation. These are the things he thought he could get through right away and, you know, it looks like he was right.

SIEGEL: We've been hearing so much about partisan divisions in Congress these days. Is Congress actually on the verge of a bipartisan breakthrough on the issue of jobs?

ZARROLI: You know, it's pretty easy to be cynical about this bill. The mood in Congress is so poisonous and yet Congress is under a lot of pressure to do something. I mean, the economy is still very weak. So, Senate leaders are under pressure to show that they can actually work together, get something accomplished. And if that was the aim it worked because the headlines about this bill have all used the word bipartisanship. The story has been focused on the fact that five Republicans crossed over and voted with a Democrat to let this bill go through.

There's been a lot less, sort of, emphasis on what the bill actually does, which is not a lot. But there is a lot more to do. At the very least, Congress needs to extend unemployment benefits. There are some popular tax credits that are going to expire. So, Democrats are hoping they can peel off enough Republican support to get these bills through the way they did yesterday.

SIEGEL: And among those five Republican votes was Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

ZARROLI: Of course, the Massachusetts senator whose election has changed the dynamics so much.

SIEGEL: NPR's Jim Zarroli in New York. Thanks, Jim.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

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