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Senate Democrats Unveil Jobs Package

posted on February 12, 2010


WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Democrats circulated a jobs bill Tuesday that's light on new initiatives on boosting hiring and heavy with provisions sought by lobbyists for business groups, doctors and the satellite broadcasting industry.

The 362-page measure is still in draft form and has not been officially released. It has bipartisan backing but very few new ideas for creating jobs, other than a $10 billion plan to exempt companies from paying the employer's share of Social Security payroll taxes for new hires if they are unemployed and hired this year.

The idea, by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is regarded as more workable than President Barack Obama's plan for tax credits of up to $5,000 for new hires.

The rest of the measure is mostly comprised of last year's unfinished business, including renewal of business tax breaks that have expired, an extension of unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies and forestalling a cut in Medicare payments for doctors.

Meanwhile, according to Labor Department data released Tuesday, finding a job got much tougher last year, as the number of available openings fell by nearly one quarter. At the same time, the unemployed population soared by more than one-third, leaving more laid-off workers competing for fewer jobs. All told, there were 6.1 unemployed workers in December, on average, for every available position, according to the Labor Department.

That's a sharp increase from 3.4 jobless workers per opening in December of 2008, and much worse than the 1.7 unemployed people per opening in December 2007, when the recession began.

The economy grew in the second half of last year and gross domestic product, the broadest measure of output, rose by a healthy 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter.

There were 2.5 million jobs available at the end of December, according to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey. That includes all jobs publicly listed by companies and government agencies.

That may seem like a lot given the severity of the recession, but that's down from 3.2 million in December 2008, a drop of 22.5 percent. And it's way below the 4.8 million openings that existed in June 2007, the peak reached before the recession.

The drop is a slight improvement from the 26.4 percent annual decline experienced in 2008.

The picture eased slightly in December from the previous month, as available jobs increased by about 60,000 from November. December's ratio of 6.1 unemployed workers per job was better than November's 6.3, the highest on records dating from 2001.

The jobs bill is politically important for Democrats seeking to respond to public anxiety about the economy. But the measure also has a lot of pull with an assortment of lobbying groups seeking to extend a raft of tax breaks and other benefits that expire at the end of the month.

The measure ignores some of Obama's ideas, including the per-job tax credit, a $250 payment to Social Security recipients and $25 billion in help for cash-strapped states.

Instead, the cornerstone of the plan would exempt companies from paying the employer's share of Social Security payroll taxes for new hires — as long as those people had been unemployed at least 60 days.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report estimates that the idea could create up to 18 jobs per $1 million in tax relief, a more efficient way to boost hiring than provisions in last year's $862 billion economic stimulus bill. The $10 billion plan could create perhaps 50,000 to 90,000 jobs through September and another 80,000 to 180,000 jobs next year.

The overall measure would cost roughly $80 billion, said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Many elements would be financed by a variety of provisions closing tax loopholes such as one enjoyed by paper companies that get a credit from burning a dirty pulpmaking byproduct known "black liquor" as if it were an alternative fuel.

The bill would also raise about $7 billion from a crackdown on international tax cheats, an issue the Internal Revenue Service and the Obama administration have embraced.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hopes to release the measure officially later Tuesday with hopes of passing it this week, despite a second major snowstorm in less than a week bearing down on the Washington area.

Reid said he expected the bill to get bipartisan support. But McConnell said he could not sign off on the package because many of his members had not yet seen the details.

The powerful physicians' lobby is behind a plan to prevent them from absorbing a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments — but only wins relief through Sept. 30. Small businesses would continue to be able to write off equipment purchases as a business expense.

The small business "expensing" plan, however, has only a modest effect in boosting jobs creation, the CBO says. Additional unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless are far more effective in creating jobs, it says.

About $33 billion in popular tax breaks, including an income tax deduction for sales and property taxes and a business tax credit for research and development, would be extended through 2010.

The tax breaks, more than 40 in all, expired at the end of 2009. They are routinely extended each year — the House voted to extend them in December — but the Senate never addressed them because senators were consumed by the health care debate.

The tax breaks are important to a wide group of constituencies, including midwestern producers of biodiesel fuel. When the $1 per gallon tax credit for biodiesel expired at the start of the year, the retail price increased by $1 a gallon, making it less competitive with regular diesel fuel, said Michael Frohlich of the National Biodiesel Board.

There's still disagreement over some ideas, GOP aides said, including whether to add $20 billion in general Treasury funds to highway accounts for jobs-creating highway and bridge projects. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the talks.

The measure also includes a major update of the law governing the satellite television industry.


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