Dems scramble to save face on jobs bill

Democratic leaders in the Senate are scrambling to avoid defections on President Obama’s jobs package, which appears headed for defeat on Tuesday.

A lack of Democratic unity on the president’s bill would be embarrassing for the White House, which has been scolding House Republicans for refusing to vote on the measure.

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Obama has been touring the country, aiming to put pressure on the GOP to act. But Senate Democrats have indicated they are feeling some heat. Last week, Democratic leaders revised Obama’s bill, scrapping his proposed offsets. Instead of raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 annually, Senate Democrats lifted that figure to $1 million. 

Despite the changes, the legislation still does not enjoy the support of all 53 senators who caucus with the Democrats. A handful of Democrats are undecided or leaning no on the bill.

Democrats who will vote no or are leaning no include Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), who all hail from red states and are up for reelection next year.

Republican and Democratic analysts say it will be politically difficult for Obama to blame the GOP for blocking the bill if more than a few conservative Democrats break ranks.

“It is important to have the vast majority of your people, because what we are doing here is a political exercise at the moment, since there doesn’t seem to be any chance that the Republican side really wants to do anything,” said Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) for 12 years. “This needs to be a 90 percent vote.” 

If there are substantial Democratic defections, “Republicans will be able to point out in the media that this plan hasn’t got enough support on either side of the aisle and argue it wasn’t thought through,” according to Ron Bonjean, a former communications director to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). 

Senate leadership is aiming to at least get a majority of the upper chamber on board for a procedural vote this week. 

That 60-vote threshold vote on whether to take up the bill is set to fail, given near unanimous GOP opposition.

Some senators, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), oppose the bill, but are willing to side with the president on the procedural vote in order to “allow discussion.” 

Lieberman opposes the bill because the 5.6 percent surtax on millionaires is being used for new spending instead of reducing the deficit, and will vote against the measure on final passage, his office said. Yet that vote is highly unlikely to occur because the bill is not expected to clear procedural hurdles.

If more than half of the senators vote to proceed to debate, Obama could argue in his stump speeches that the GOP has blocked a jobs bill supported by a majority of the Senate. 

Democrats can only afford to lose two of their own and claim a thwarted majority. They appear to have no extra leeway because Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is a likely no vote despite calls last week for bipartisan action on jobs. It is unclear how GOP Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe will vote. 

The office of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Monday that he is undecided. “He wants to see the whole thing — including amendments — before he decides whether he’ll vote for it,” an aide said. 

Baucus, Tester’s colleague from Montana who is up for reelection in 2014, supports large parts of the Obama bill, including the millionaire’s tax, the payroll tax cut, small infrastructure spending and tax credits to help businesses hire veterans. 

Bonjean said a defection by the likes of Baucus would be especially damaging.

“They can afford to lose a few senators. That’s OK. It happens on both sides,” Bonjean said. “If they lose a major player like Baucus, that is a big deal.”

Elmendorf suggested Baucus might be providing cover for his colleague Tester, who faces a tough race against Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) in 2012.

Tester is officially against the bill. He supports an overhaul of the tax code rather than the changes in the bill and is concerned that the payroll tax cuts would weaken Social Security.

Tester’s office was unable to say on Monday if Tester will vote for the motion to open debate. 

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) remained officially undecided on the bill as of Monday, his office said. Webb has a problem with the millionaire’s surtax because it is a tax increase on ordinary earned income. He would prefer closing loopholes and increasing taxes on capital gains.

Nelson has spoken disparagingly of Obama’s proposal, but his office said Monday that Nelson has not decided yet how he will vote on it and is still studying the bill. 

Manchin has been critical of the legislation, though he, too, has not said how he will vote. His office did not respond to questions Monday. 

However, the effort to unite Democrats has yielded some fruit.

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Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is now leaning toward voting for the bill. Landrieu had opposed eliminating oil and gas tax breaks in order to pay for Obama’s bill. She has touted the removal of these provisions. 

Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who are GOP targets in 2012, have not come out strongly for the Obama bill, but they will vote for it, aides said. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is also onboard.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), another election-year target who has attempted to distance herself from Obama, has spoken favorably of the bill. Her office did not respond to questions on Monday, but on Tuesday said she would vote for it.

Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is not entirely enamored with Obama’s measure, but is expected to vote yes. He has a problem with the payroll tax holiday and favors more investment in infrastructure. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week predicted most every Democrat will vote yes, but stopped short of saying he could deliver the entire Democratic Caucus: “[T]o get all my senators to agree that I can take a break to go to the bathroom, I can’t quite get that. So we’ll get most everyone … there could be some that don’t support it. But it would be a rare situation.”

Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman, said Monday that Reid is sticking by his prediction and  “Republicans will have to choose whether to support a bill that will create 1.9 million jobs and bring down the unemployment rate or block it for political reasons."

With the Jobs Act virtually guaranteed to fail, the real consequences of Democratic defections could be seen closer to the end of the year. Elmendorf said that the maneuvering is all about laying the political groundwork for massive end-of-the-year bills dealing with 2012 spending, the extension of tax breaks and possible recommendations of the House-Senate supercommittee. 

The types and extent of the jobs measures that make it into those bills is being determined by the votes this week.

—Updated at 10:05 a.m. on Oct. 11.