Senate Gives Jobs Bill Thumbs Up Amid Criticism

The jobs bill appears to have won bipartisan support, with 70 Senators voting in support of a plan that calls for tax breaks to encourage hiring. Host Michel Martin speaks with Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) for more information on the bill, criticisms that the bill will not solve the economic crisis, and what the thinks will happen moving forward.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we want to take a closer look at Congresss efforts to create more jobs. After weeks of negotiations, 70 senators voted in support of a plan that calls for tax breaks to encourage hiring and extends funding for highway and mass-transit programs through the spring construction season. The bill now goes to the House whose members passed a much bigger bill last December.

Now supporters of the bill are saying its time the Congress move to address the countrys terrible unemployment situation. But not surprisingly, the bill has critics on the left and the right who either call it too puny or too expensive. In a moment, well hear from the Reverend Jesse Jackson of the RainbowPUSH Coalition for his take on whether the legislation will do anything to help the groups hardest hit by unemployment, especially African-Americans.

But first, we want to hear from Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Hes one of the 70 members including 55 Democrats who voted in support of the bill yesterday. We reached him at his office on Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program or I should say welcome back.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): Thank you, Michel. Good to be with you again.

MARTIN: Now, before we jump into the jobs bill, the other big news out of Washington today is that the president is meeting with a number of congressional leaders to talk about the health care overhaul. When we last spoke to you, we talked about health care. What do you hope will come out of this meeting?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, my hope is that Republicans who have had many of their ideas already incorporated to the process that we went through in the Senate, in the committees and amendments and many ideas that the president incorporated in his version of health care will find common ground with us and help us move forward in achieving, lowering costs for everyone who has health insurance and stop the double-digit premium increases. Side with us, you know, instead of the insurance companies who are consistently denying people who have health care coverage when they file a claim and need it the most and ensure millions more of Americans who have no health insurance whatsoever.

So thats our hope, you know, I want to be an optimist. Im concerned when Republicans, prior to today, simply say that they see this whole effort as the president trying to lay a trap for them. If thats the mindset that you go to the meeting with, Im not sure its the most positive one in order to achieve common cause, but thats what we hope will happen.

MARTIN: But is the setting itself one where you really can negotiate. I mean, is a public, a televised meeting really a place to negotiate something like that or really is it just theater?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, no. I think, first of all, remember that one of the Republicans claims is that there has been a lack of transparency. So heres the ultimate transparency. Two, is the fact that while everything wont be negotiated at this days events, you could have a foundation upon which you could build. And Im sure thats the intention that the president has.

But, you know, you cant have it both ways. You cant say that there has been a lack of transparency and then when there is full transparency say that its not a good way to negotiate.

MARTIN: When we last spoke we talked about the health bill that at the time was the major focus of attention both by the White House and by the congressional leadership. And at the time, you still were not fully pleased with the bill that at the time it didnt really include a public option. But you were optimistic. You said, you know, you felt that, at the end of the day, there would be some form of legislation that would achieve the goal of near universal, if not universal, coverage that would lower costs and that would be politically palatable. Do you still feel that way? Do you still feel that that can happen?

Sen. MENENDEZ: I do, I do. And I think that, you know, the president who put out his own version, which is largely mirrored after the Senate version, but does take some of the Houses versions and tries to, you know, split some of the differences on creating greater affordability for middle class families. Were all for that. How we fund the bill in terms of making sure its fully paid for, keeping it below certain levels in terms of overall expenditure. But above all, reducing costs for families who have it, ending insurance company abuses, like preexisting conditions, lifetime caps, extending the age up to 26 where you can keep your child on your health insurance. And bringing, you know, 30, 35 million more Americans into health care is a template that he put forward.

And I think theres a few refinements to it but at the end of the day I see a pathway, hopefully with Republicans. But in the absence of them wanting to join us to achieve those overarching goals, I still see a pathway for it to happen.

MARTIN: And lets talk about the jobs bill now. Why did you vote for it?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, I voted for it because, first of all, this is the beginning of a jobs agenda. This is not the total jobs agenda. And anyone who looks at this and says, well, it wasnt enough, should be thinking about that this is the first installment.

But its a very significant installment. It creates payroll tax relief for businesses that are willing to hire people, which is what we want to see. We want to see incentives for businesses to hire people because theyre going to, at the end of the day, hire more people than anybody in the government can. And it does so in a way that not only encourages them to hire by that payroll tax relief. But if they keep that person employed for a year or more, they get an additional $1,000 credit.

It also gives tax relief for small businesses that purchased major equipment to help them expand or to help them continue to make their business vibrant. The people who create those equipment, who deliver that equipment, who install that equipment are all going to be put to work, and obviously that business is going to enhance its productivity. And in doing so, be able to hire more people.

The extension of the Highway Trust Fund, incredibly important for infrastructure investment across the country, saving over a million jobs the Congressional Budget office tells us. And finally, the expansion of the Build America Bonds, which is a program that allows states to finance all types of infrastructure projects, including school construction and renovation, energy projects. Those are critical and a great opportunity for more work to be created.

So, you know, job creation is number one for us and I think this legislation is an important first step in our jobs agenda.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were speaking with Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Hes a Democrat. Were talking about the jobs bill that passed in the Senate yesterday. It did pass with bipartisan support, 55 Democrats were joined by 15 Republicans. Youre saying its - there was a phrase you just used and it basically say, well, this is a first step.

There are those - there are critics on both sides of the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans, and also I think, you know, out among the voters who are saying that why did it take so long to focus on jobs. As you know, a number of people are criticizing both the president and the Democratic leadership for not prioritizing the job situation first. What do you say to that?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, I say that the economic recovery package was all about both stabilizing an economy that was ready to go into a deep depression and in doing so save jobs and create jobs.

I mean, people forget that over 40 percent of the Recovery Act were tax cuts that helped people put more money in their pocket and therefore expand on critical needs, which created stimulus in our economy that will help create jobs. So I remind them that the Omnibus Bill that we had last year, the Appropriations Bill had several elements in there to help create jobs and even health care.

At the end of the day, if you get health care reformed the way Democrats envision it, its about jobs as well because if you continue to have double-digit premium increases for health insurance, then businesses have less money to hire people, individuals have less money who may not get it at their place of work to spend in the economy and therefore create a demand for jobs and services.

And at the same time, when you bring 30 to 35 million new Americans into health care fully paid for, you create a demand for the delivery of health care services to all those individuals who probably dont have insurance. So that in and of itself is a jobs program too.

So, I look at all of these elements and say to myself we have been working on jobs. Obviously, you cant take an economy that was on the verge of a depression, where we inherited huge job losses, have not only ended for the most part those job losses, stabilized it, now see growth and turn it around overnight.

We are continuing to work on this, and we will be focused like a laser beam continuously as we have, to some degree, last year. And some of the most critical issues that created the opportunity for growth to take place and jobs to be created.

MARTIN: And also, let me just correct myself that there are 13 other Republicans, 13 Republicans voted with the Democratic majority for the bill. The other two, of course, votes came from independents. And so let me just correct that on its face.

Now, of course, on the other side of it, there are those who were saying the Democrats havent done enough, that the leadership hasnt done enough. On the other side of it, there are people who are now very worried about the deficit and that they say that there isnt enough attention being paid to this kind of looming problem. How do you balance out those priorities in your own mind?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, first of all, you know, we are concerned about the deficit and thats why Democrats alone, without Republican votes, passed budget discipline procedures like Pay As You Go, which means you have a new program you want to have or you want to have a tax cut you want to give, then you have to pay for it. You have to find the funding source.

Thats something that hasnt happened in the Congress. Republicans wouldnt join us in that budget discipline. Democrats pushed that forward. So now, any proposal, including the jobs bill we voted on yesterday is fully paid for. And thats going to help us stop the reduction of begin the process of reducing the debt instead of adding to it.

Secondly, many of us, myself included, voted for a commission that has now been put forth by the president, but we voted for a statutory one to deal with our long term debt and to bring that under control and reduce it. You know, nine Republicans senators who actually were co-sponsors of the legislation ended up voting against it.

Its an example of the difference between what you say and what you do and how, you know, Republicans, for the sake of having the president fail on all of these issues, are even willing to vote against those pieces of legislation that they co-sponsored in the first place.

MARTIN: Well, then finally - and well have about a minute left - given that, how do you whats the basis of your optimism that youre going to be able to move forward both on health care and on other measures that you feel are necessary? You call this a first step. Whats the source of your optimism?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, I think on the critical issues of jobs, we saw that Republicans, when we force the issue, are willing to join us because they understand they cant go back to their constituents and say Im voting against jobs initiatives.

And on health care, hopefully, we will have Republicans. But if not, there is a process, a budgetary process that would allow us to move forward called reconciliation. And that may very well be the vehicle that well have to use if we cant get bipartisan support to bring down cost on health care, to give people more insurance and to stop insurance companies from arbitrarily and capriciously denying our consumers.

MARTIN: Robert Menendez is a Democrat. He represents New Jersey in the United States Senate. He was kind enough to join us from his office on Capitol Hill. Senator, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Thank you, Michel. Have a good day.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Still to come, the University of Mississippi mascot Colonel Reb was quietly dumped in 2003, considered an offensive relic of a racist past. Now a student vote has officially given him his walking papers. So what will replace him? Well try to find out how the colonel was retired. Thats next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

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