Democrats try to pivot to jobs agenda

Senate Democrats tried to put the deficit issue behind them Tuesday and pivot to a job-creation agenda.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters minutes after the debt-ceiling deal passed: “It is now time for Congress to get back to our regularly scheduled program, and that means jobs.”

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“With this debt-reduction package completed, the decks are now clear for a single-minded focus on jobs in September,” Schumer said. “We now have the chance to pivot away from budget battles to jobs. … The jobs issue won’t have to play second fiddle to the deficit issue anymore.”

Schumer said that for Democrats, job creation is their “strong suit.”

But with spending in handcuffs from the deal’s spending caps, Democrats are still figuring out what their jobs agenda will be. The ideas they have already put out were shot down Tuesday by Senate Republicans. 

Democrats had hoped to include economic stimulus in the debt-ceiling deal, but such measures were not included in the bill President Obama signed into law on Tuesday.

Democratic aides are bitter about that, and see little opportunity for extending unemployment insurance or the payroll tax holiday with the debt-ceiling train having left the station.

Obama on Tuesday asked lawmakers to focus on jobs when they return from the August recess.

"We need to begin by extending tax cuts for middle-class families so that you have more money in your paychecks next year. … And while we’re at it, we need to make sure that millions of workers who are still pounding the pavement looking for jobs to support their families are not denied needed unemployment benefits," Obama said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that the first jobs bill to move after the recess will be the patent reform legislation. He said that he will file cloture on that Tuesday so that the Senate can take up the bill immediately when the Senate convenes in September.

Reid and bill sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the bill, which speeds patent applications, is expected to create 200,000 jobs. Leahy said there is bipartisan agreement with the GOP to move the bill, but he could not identify any other bills with a chance of passage. 

Reid said that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told him that he has identified a suitable source of funding to renew the major surface transportation authorization bill, set to expire on Sept. 30.  

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that with the debt agreement in place, it is no longer possible to throw money at the economy and that it will be “very difficult” to find ways to pay for stimulating measures.  

Schumer and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) declined to comment on the specifics of what else is being examined. Murray said Democrats will be refining their jobs agenda over the August recess.

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Democrats will face high hurdles in passing an extension of unemployment insurance or a payroll tax holiday. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and GOP conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said there is no appetite for either.

Alexander does want to see extension of the research and development tax credit. He said he understands the House will immediately take up tax reform in September, and this would be a major contribution to jobs creation.

Moderate Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) also supports making the R&D tax credit permanent, but he would not say whether he could support extension of unemployment insurance.   

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said there “may” be some appetite for the payroll tax holiday but that there is strong resistance to the unemployment insurance extension because it encourages the unemployed not to look for work.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said making sure the appropriations bills focus on the right investments will be a key part of the jobs agenda, as will infrastructure.

But Republicans and some conservative Democrats have different ideas and want to continue cutting spending as a way to stimulate growth.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he is focused on reducing regulation and passing free trade agreements.

Asked how the differences can be overcome and jobs bills can be passed, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said, “I just don’t know.”