Will Senate Take Real Action on Jobs—or Just Pander to Republicans?

Art Levine

In yet another search for bipartisanship, Senate Democrats seem willing to abandon strong measures to create jobs in order to find enough tax breaks for businesses to appeal to Republicans. And in the eyes of progressives, there wasn’t much comfort to be taken from the unemployment rate announced this week taking a slight dip downwards to 9.7 percent with 20,000 jobs lost, especially since extended unemployment insurance runs out on February 28th, unless the Senate takes immediate action.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed out (via AFL-CIO Now blog):

We welcome the news that unemployment dropped to 9.7%, but we shed another 20,000 jobs last month, following a revised 150,000 loss in December. These numbers underscore what we have been saying all along. Working families need bigger and bolder actions — in the short, medium and long term — to create jobs in the immediate future — or we risk permanent scarring of our economy and our workforce.

Unfortunately, as the Campaign for America’s Future Robert Borosage points out, we’ll need at least 400,000 new jobs created each month to bring down unemployment rates to the levels they were before the recession hit.

Borosage observes:

In order to simply recover the jobs lost during the Great Recession, we would need to create more than 400,000 jobs a month for each of the next three years. The House’s Jobs for Main Street Bill” is a step in the right direction and the Senate needs to pass this vital legislation without delay.

But the House bill is only a start, and is not sufficient to overcome mass unemployment. We need a far bolder commitment to put people to work, including direct public service jobs that can be targeted to those areas most devastated in the downturn…

With nearly 26 million Americans out of work or underemployed, now is not the time to be trying to cut deficits and freeze spending. The Obama budget projects unemployment to be at 9.8 percent when the domestic discretionary spending freeze kicks in, and the biggest danger is that spending restraints will stall recovery — and increase deficits as mass unemployment continues.

The House has acted. The president has called for a jobs bill. It is time for the Senate to pass the bill as a first step to the bolder investment agenda we need.

But that’s not what happening on Capitol Hill, and it’s unclear just how much grass-roots pressure on this issue unions and progressives are mustering to push for something considerably stronger than the $80 billion package now being considered in the Senate. (In These Times wasn’t able to reach some key progressive and union activists for comment.)

The job plight is especially dire for minorities, as this new press release from the La Raza group points out:

Leading economists and civil rights figures reacted to the Senate’s latest proposal to create jobs in light of new unemployment numbers from the Department of Labor. The legislation, introduced by Senators Reid (D – NV), Durbin (D – IL), Dorgan (D – ND), Baucus (D – MT), and Schumer (D – NY), is a good first step toward creating jobs immediately. However, major improvements are needed to effectively tackle the high unemployment rate among minority workers, according to NCLR (National Council of La Raza), the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. Unemployment data released today confirms that minorities continue to suffer disproportionately from joblessness. In January, the unemployment rate was 16.5% for Blacks and 12.6 % for Latinos, compared to 9.7% nationwide.

Yet the reality in the Senate is much more meager:

Senate leaders plan to pass a jobs bill next week featuring tax breaks for employers that hire unemployed workers, a rare bipartisan effort in an election-year Congress sharply divided along political lines.

We want to work with the Republicans and it appears to me, on the jobs program, they want to work with us,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters. We do believe very emphatically that we will be having a bipartisan bill.”

The Senate will start work on the bill Monday, Reid said. If the bill is passed by the end of next week, when the Senate takes a President’s Day break, it would hand President Barack Obama a badly needed political victory.

Passage of a bipartisan bill would contrast sharply with the way Congress has done business for the past year, reflecting the Democrats’ diminished power since Republican Scott Brown scored a stunning victory last month in a special Senate election in Massachusetts. With Brown seated Thursday, Senate Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority in the body, meaning they need at least some Republican support to pass legislation.

Democrats believe a jobs bill that includes tax breaks Republicans support is a good way to break the ice, while also reflecting Obama’s renewed emphasis on creating jobs. Also, lawmakers worried about re-election in the midst of double-digit unemployment want to be seen as helping the 7 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the recession.

We heard the message of Massachusetts,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. They said focus immediately — and don’t take your focus off — jobs, the economy, helping the middle class.”

But that doesn’t go far enough, and there are troubling questions whether this tax incentive-based approach supported by Democrats will really work.

As Bill Scher of the Campaign for America’s Future observes:

We are nowhere near the rate of job creation needed to have a robust recovery.

Yet the Senate still has not produced a jobs bill proposal equal to the size of the problem.

The Senate is understandably struggling to pass anything of significance in the face of widespread obstruction from the conservative minority.

But the only way to change that dynamic and shame at least a few conservatives into getting out the way, is to speak up.

Click here to tell your Senators: pass a real jobs bill.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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