WASHINGTON - The Senate on Wednesday passed a jobs bill that one senator described as "modest," but one that Democrats hope will be the first in a series of attempts to jump-start hiring nationwide.
More notable, perhaps, than the bill itself was the fact that 13 Republicans crossed party lines to vote for it. The $15 billion bill passed by a 70-28 tally.
The bill would grant employers a "holiday" on their 6.2 percent Social Security payroll contribution for every new employee hired through the rest of the year, as long as that employee has been out of work for at least 60 days. It also would make it easier for businesses to write off equipment purchases and would extend federal highway and mass-transit funding programs.
"For the first time in a long time we have a bill that is supported by both Democrats and Republicans," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said shortly before the vote, but he cautioned, "This is not a magic wand that is going to be waved and all our joblessness will decline."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the vote proved that bipartisanship in the Senate is "possible." It also marked a victory for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has seen his chamber paralyzed by partisan warfare. Reid pushed for the vote counting on some GOP support and was rewarded earlier this week when several Republicans, including the newest senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, signed on.
The bill now heads to the House, where leaders there must decide whether to pass the Senate bill unchanged or attempt to reconcile it with a much more sweeping $154 billion bill it passed in December. House Democrats have complained that the Senate's approach is too incremental and won't reshape the employment landscape quickly enough. Still, they may decide that Congress needs to show the public that it's moving forward on job creation.
Republicans opposing the bill charged that it was fiscally irresponsible and would add to the burgeoning federal debt. "I don't think you get people back to work in this nation by loading more and more debt onto the next generation," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
But others argued that the bill was necessary because it would pump up the depleted federal Highway Trust Fund.
"There are some things that we are supposed to be doing in America," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. "We need to start building roads and bridges and repairing them."
Just the mere scene of two Republicans having an open disagreement on a piece of legislation on the Senate floor was news in a year where party discipline has been the norm.
Senate leaders will now develop further job-related measures and they hope the votes this week will serve as a bipartisan model going forward for passing a series of bills.
Those bills are expected to include extensions of several industry-friendly tax breaks, such as a credit for biofuels and research and development costs. The Senate is also expected to try and push through further extensions on unemployment compensation and COBRA.
Many of those provisions were in a bill crafted by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that was rejected by Reid earlier this month as too industry-friendly.
Beyond that, Democrats are pressing for federal aid for beleaguered state and local governments to help preserve public-sector jobs, although that is likely to meet with significant opposition from Republicans.
Eight Republicans who Monday didn't support a procedural motion to proceed with the jobs bill switched sides Wednesday to support it, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; and Richard Burr, R-N.C. Hatch was a co-author, along with Schumer, of the payroll tax provision in the bill.