Senate passes $140 billion extension of jobless benefits

The Senate approved $140 billion in extended tax breaks and unemployment benefits on Wednesday in a largely partisan vote. 

The bill was approved on a 62-36 vote, with six Republicans joining most Democrats in backing it.

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Senate Democrats are calling the measure a jobs bill, though it includes tax breaks extended by Congress on a near-annual basis as well as a fix to Medicare payments for doctors that lawmakers also have previously extended. 

It’s the second package of legislation that Senate Democrats have labeled as a jobs bill this year, joining a $15 billion measure approved by the Senate last week. 

GOP Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), David Vitter (La.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) voted for the bill. 

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) voted against the bill after voting for cloture to allow the legislation to move forward a day earlier. Brown supported the procedural vote Tuesday, saying he “wanted the process to move forward” despite his opposition to it. Brown had concerns over the measure because it wasn’t paid for, his office said Wednesday.

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) was the only Democrat to vote against the bill.

Liberals in the House argue the two measures approved by the Senate are too heavy on tax cuts, and are frustrated the Senate hasn’t picked up a jobs bill the House approved last year. 

In December, House lawmakers approved a $154 billion bill that included infrastructure spending, unemployment benefits and fiscal aid for state and local governments trying to avoid layoffs to government employees. 

“That’s all well and good, but the real jobs are in” infrastructure spending, said Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) of the Senate bill. 

Oberstar, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told him he would soon bring up a bill that included the infrastructure and state fiscal aid measures from the House jobs bill. 

According to Oberstar, Reid said this would happen before Congress leaves for the Easter break.

Reid’s office did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Meanwhile, one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) closest allies on Wednesday offered another $100 billion jobs measure. 

Rep. George Miller’s (D-Calif.) proposal includes $100 billion for local governments for new public jobs and work-training programs.

“Our goal is to retain or create a million jobs,” Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told CNBC. “There’s some very serious concern that the small good news we’re getting right now on the unemployment figures could be wiped out by what’s going to happen in local governments if they don’t get some assistance.”

Most of the cost in the bill approved by the Senate goes toward prolonging increased levels of federal unemployment aid and COBRA healthcare benefits for the jobless through the end of December. The cost of those extensions is about $80 billion.

The bill also extends the current rate of Medicare payments to doctors, who are scheduled to see a 21 percent rate cut, and extends several tax breaks, including ones for homeowners who don’t itemize deductions, for states with sales taxes but no income tax and for companies’ research-and-development costs.

Democrats said the extended unemployment benefits would provide relief to Americans out of work and a boost to economy, since recipients would be sure to spend them.

“This recession shook the foundation of our economy, leaving many Americans without work and many business owners questioning their future,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said in a statement. “Extending these tax cuts and the critical safety-net programs in this bill will give businesses the tax certainty they need to move forward and families the support they need to make ends meet.”

Republicans who voted no said it would add more than $100 billion to the deficit, which the White House expects to hit a record $1.56 trillion this year.

“It’s the debt extender bill,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

The bill raises nearly $40 billion in new revenue to offset some of the cost by cutting back on a biofuel tax break used by the paper industry and by tightening tax shelter rules.

House Democrats suggested they may make changes to the Senate bill when they take it up.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it’s “an open question” whether House members will force a conference to resolve differences between the two chambers.

House members noted that the revenue raisers in the Senate bill are already included in the healthcare reform proposal favored by President Barack Obama.

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.