CBC faces tough fight on summer jobs

Black lawmakers are continuing their push for billions of dollars in spending for jobs programs, even as they return to Washington this week to face a deck stacked heavily against them.

The Senate has given a cool reception to legislation approved by the House, and lawmakers in the larger chamber are increasingly opposed to moving any bills that add to the deficit.

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One of the brighter spots of the May jobs report released Friday was that the unemployment rate for blacks dropped by a full percentage point, to 15.5 percent, amid an overall static picture. Black employment may have been boosted by the hiring last month of 411,000 temporary Census workers.

“The Census may have employed black workers disproportionately,” said Algernon Austin, the director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute. “The enumerators who they hire tend to be from harder-to-reach communities, so the Census workers may be disproportionately blacks who are serving to help complete the Census.”

But given the temporary nature of the Census jobs and the wide employment gaps between blacks and other segments of the labor force, few are willing to embrace the 1 percent unemployment rate drop unconditionally.

“Black America and black youth in particular are still in a very deep recession,” Austin said.

At 15.5 percent, the unemployment rate for blacks is nearly twice as high as the rate for whites (8.8 percent). Among blacks 16 to 19 years of age, the unemployment rate in May stood at 38 percent.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said she was pleased with the number of jobs created for blacks as a result of Census hiring, but said Congress needs to take it as a signal that its work on the jobs front is far from over.

“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward with the right jobs bills,” Lee said.

Lee has been leading the fight for passage, at a bare minimum, of a $1 billion summer jobs program that supporters say will employ 3 million to 4 million teenagers, many of them black, during out-of-school months.

The summer jobs program has been approved by the House and managed to survive the bloodletting that nearly felled the tax extenders and unemployment benefits extension bill.

But animosity toward moving any legislation that adds to the deficit continues to grow in the House; it delayed passage of the tax bill long enough to prevent it from getting to the president before unemployment benefits for millions of Americans expired on June 1.

Worries about the deficit are also present in the Senate.

Lee said she and other CBC members have met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) about the summer jobs bill, but she acknowledged the possibility that it would need to be stripped from the tax extenders bill in order to get 60 votes for passage.

“We’re working with the Senate, but it’s hard to say what kind of vehicle will be available for this,” she said.

And while Lee and other progressive Democrats wait on the Senate, they also have plenty of work cut out for them with members of their own Democratic Caucus in the House.

Objections to adding to the deficit even for “emergency” spending measures have spread from the usual ranks of conservative Blue Dog Democrats and taken hold among significant numbers of freshman and sophomore Democrats who don’t align themselves with the Blue Dogs.

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Before the House was able to pass the tax extenders package, Democratic leaders had to quell revolts over the bill’s price tag and twice trim it to lessen its impact on the deficit.

“We haven’t heard that it’s not the right thing to do,” Lee said of spending on jobs programs. “We’ve only heard criticism of its designation as emergency spending. But this is an emergency.”

Upon the release of Friday’s jobs report, both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called work on legislation aimed at reducing unemployment the top legislative priority for Democrats.

“Democrats in Congress will continue taking action on our No. 1 priority: creating good-paying jobs for the American people,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday.

At the same time, Democratic leadership aides said leaders are waiting to see what happens to the tax extenders bill in the Senate before gauging how best to move forward in the House on various unemployment fixes — including those, like the summer jobs program, that were in the House version of the tax bill — and even on extending COBRA health insurance benefits and providing aid to cash-starved states.

“We need to see how things unfold when the bill goes to the Senate,” a Democratic leadership aide said.