By Andrew Taylor
Washington — The Senate is where legislation often goes to die, and it’s looking like that’s the fate awaiting a new jobs bill wanted by President Barack Obama.
The deficit-financed jobs bill limped out of the House last month, and its prospects appear bleak in the Senate, where it’s probably going to take all 60 votes in the Democrats’ coalition to pass it.
That’s doubtful. About one in six House Democrats voted no when the bill squeaked through the House last month.
Prospects for getting the required unanimity among Senate Democrats are especially bleak, given that the first item on the Senate’s agenda when it returns is a bill to let the government take on another $925 billion of debt.
To then take up legislation to spend perhaps $75 billion to $150 billion of that strikes some Democrats as a bad vote.
There’s also Obama’s upcoming budget projecting another record deficit atop last year’s record $1.4 trillion, adding to the difficulty in passing the new jobs package.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., supports a new stimulus measure but acknowledged the hurdles to passing one. Democratic moderates such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana have registered concerns.
“It’s hard to answer in a vacuum without knowing what’s in it, but if it’s just a wish list of spenders’ favorite items, that’s not going to go through,” said Bayh.
“Senator Nelson is very concerned about the level of federal spending and the deficit,” said Nelson spokesman Jake Thompson. “He would look at a jobs package, but those factors would weigh heavily in his mind.” Nelson also thinks there’s plenty of stimulus money still in the pipeline, Thompson said.
Talk of a second economic stimulus measure intensified after the nationwide unemployment rate topped 10 percent last fall.
Obama has proposed new spending for highway and bridge construction, for small business tax cuts and for retrofitting millions of homes to make them more energy-efficient. He also proposed an additional $250 apiece in stimulus spending for seniors and veterans and billions of dollars in aid to state and local governments to avert layoffs of teachers, police officers and firefighters.
The House responded with an approximately $174 billion measure accepting many of Obama’s ideas. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had to work the floor for an hour to win the 217-212 vote on Dec. 16. The vote was held just after Democratic leaders forced through stopgap legislation to raise the debt limit by $290 billion.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who’s been preoccupied with health care, has handed off the jobs issue to Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. They’ve taken more than 100 ideas from lawmakers and have tried to pare them to about a dozen proposals, including steps to help small businesses create jobs, money for so-called green jobs and spending for roads and bridges.
The idea is to enact steps that would boost employment before next fall’s election. But spending on roads and bridges can be slow. Projects need to be planned and can require a lengthy contracting process before jobs appear on construction sites.
According to a report late last week from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, “fewer projects are ‘shovel ready’ than one might expect” and most of the hires resulting from new spending on roads and bridges wouldn’t occur until after 2011.
Democrats muscled through the first stimulus bill after Obama took office with high approval ratings in public opinion polls. Now, Obama’s numbers are significantly lower.
Just two current Republicans — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine — voted for Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill early last year, and neither is committing to a second round, though they’re likely to endorse elements of the plan, such as extending unemployment payments to the long-term jobless.
“I personally believe that we need more stimulus. I think this thing is still quite weak, especially in the jobs area,” Conrad said.
But he’s less certain whether it can pass, saying: “I just don’t know.”