Senate blocks $35 billion for teachers, firefighters

Posted Oct. 21, 2011, at 5:27 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 21, 2011, at 8:51 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Nine days after President Barack Obama’s $447 billion jobs package was blocked in the U.S. Senate, a key plank of the plan that would provide $35 billion to states to hire teachers and first responders suffered the same fate late Thursday.

The vote represented the legislative angle of a broad political strategy by Democrats designed to convince voters they are pushing popular job creation bills but are being thwarted by Republican opposition.

Indeed, all 47 Republicans voted against allowing the bill to proceed to a full debate, arguing temporary stimulus dollars for state government would do little to help the bolster the private sector.

Republicans also opposed a new 0.5 percent surtax on millionaires to pay for the aid, as Democrats proposed. They contended inclusion of a tax increase signaled that the vote had been intended as a campaign tool and not a serious effort to find bipartisan agreement on ways Washington could spur job growth.

Two Democrats also opposed proceeding with the measure, as did Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., while 50 senators voted to move ahead with the bill.

Under the cumbersome rules of the Senate, 60 votes were needed to continue toward action on the bill.

The vote concluded a week-long whirlwind of rallies and speeches in favor of the proposal from Obama, who barnstormed for the bill on a bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia, and from Senate Democrats who rallied with teachers and firefighters at the Capitol.

“If they vote against these proposals, if they say no to steps we know that will put people back to work right now, they’re not going to have to answer to me, they’re going to have to answer to you,” Obama told firefighters at a stop in Chesterfield, Va., on Wednesday.

Also blocked Thursday was a Republican counter-proposal that resembled a piece of Obama’s plan and would have repealed a new 3 percent withholding tax on payments to government vendors set to go into effect in 2013.

Democrats said they could not accept paying for the proposal by offsetting spending elsewhere, as the GOP urged. Republicans countered that the Democratic opposition proved they were willing to scuttle the parts of Obama’s jobs proposal that enjoyed Republican support to avoid distracting from their narrative of GOP obstinacy.

Democrats plan to hold votes on other elements of the American Jobs Act in coming weeks, including new funding for road and school building, tax credits for businesses that hire veterans and the long-term unemployed, an extension of unemployment benefits for unemployed workers and an extension of a payroll tax holiday.

Democrats have been buoyed by polls showing that providing dollars to pay teachers, police officers and fire fighters is overwhelmingly popular, particularly as state and local budget cuts have forced teacher layoffs, increasing class sizes and eliminating of school programs like art and music.

And they have pointed to monthly statistics that show the public sector has been losing jobs even as the private sector has been slowly adding employees.

But Republicans said the aid to states, $30 billion for education and $5 billion for public safety, would amount to a bailout for state and local government, paid from with new taxes on business leaders best able to create private sector jobs.

Twice before Congress has approved assistance for states, which have slashed their budgets as tax revenues have fallen in the economic downturn. But while economists say propping up state and local budgets have slowed public-sector job losses, GOP leaders counter it has failed to spark a full economic recovery.

“What I’m saying is let’s put the government stimulus bills aside for a change and do something for the small business men and women in this country who are begging for mercy from their own government in Washington,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

McConnell accused Democrats of pushing the teacher and first responder piece of the bill to draw out Republican opposition. Even if the bill had passed the Senate, the GOP-led House would not have approved it.

To prove the point, McConnell forced the Thursday vote to repeal the withholding tax, indicating it should receive support from senators in both parties.

Enacted in 2006, the withholding tax’s implementation has been delayed repeatedly, mostly recently to the end of 2012, in response to concerns that it would hurt companies with government business.

But McConnell’s proposal to offset the repeal with $30 billion in budget cuts drew Democratic opposition and a veto threat from Obama.

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