Jonathan Cohn

Promising Signs About the Jobs Bill?

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Remember when President Obama wouldn’t even utter the word “Republican”? Those days are long gone. And maybe, just maybe, the change in rhetoric is starting to pay off.

We’re now into week four of the administration’s campaign to promote its jobs proposal. And instead of dialing down the pressure, Obama has been dialing it up. One day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Republicans wouldn’t bring the proposal to a vote in the House, Obama on Tuesday criticized Cantor – and he did so by name:

Yesterday, the Republican Majority Leader in Congress, Eric Cantor, said that right now he won’t even let this jobs bill have a vote in the House of Representatives.

This is what he said. Won’t even let it be debated. Won’t even give it a chance to be debated on the floor of the House of Representatives. Think about that. I mean, what’s the problem? Do they not have the time? They just had a week off. Is it inconvenient?

Look, I’d like Mr. Cantor to come down here to Dallas and explain what exactly in this jobs bill does he not believe in. What exactly is he opposed to? Does he not believe in rebuilding America’s roads and bridges? Does he not believe in tax breaks for small businesses, or efforts to help our veterans?

A new ABC-Washington Post poll suggests that, so far, Obama's campaign is working. The public still think that the president, like Congress, is doing a lousy job overall. But public support for the elements of his jobs bill is high. And, more important, Obama has opened up a substantial gap with the Republicans over which party voters trust more to handle "job creation." 

Of course, Obama and his allies still face a problem in the one chamber their party controls: The Senate. The “jobs” part of the proposal has been a pretty easy sell: Pretty much the entire caucus seems happy, or at least content, with the mix of tax breaks, public works spending, and aid to the states Obama has put on the table. But to pay for the jobs bill, Obama had proposed to raise taxes on families making more than $250,000, which rankled some senators, while closing loopholes that benefited certain industries, which rankled others.

But it looks like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, along with Senators Charles Schumer and Max Baucus, may be close to breaking that impasse. On Wednesday, they and the rest of the Senate Democratic leadership unveiled a new proposal, which the White House has since endorsed, to pay for the cost of the employment initiatives by levying a new surtax on millionaires.

Purely from a policy perspective, the millionaire surtax is not as elegant as Obama’s proposal. Among other things, the idea that we should think twice about raising taxes on incomes over $250,000, as Schumer has suggested, is absurd. (Eventually we'lll have to raise taxes on many more people than that.) And it would have been nice to eliminate some of those unnecessary oil and gas subsidies.

Then again, Obama’s own proposal wasn’t perfect either. And both proposals still have a lot to recommend them, according to Steve Wamoff, legislative director of Citizens for Tax Justice:

neither of them are ideal but both are commendable in that they raise needed revenue in a progressive way. … Both Obama’s limit on deductions and exclusions and Senator Reid’s millionaire surcharge are extra provisions to be placed on top of a tax system that could be simplified a lot. But if lawmakers are finally talking about raising revenue and doing it in a progressive way, it’s hard to complain when we’re in such dire need for revenue to fund a jobs program.

OK, but what about the politics? Can this proposal unify the caucus? In an ideal world, it would. If it’s ok for Baucus (who actually wrote the proposal) and his Montana constituents, it should be okay for the rest of the Democratic delegation. But the votes of Democrats seeking reelection in conservative states, like Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are very much in doubt. 

If even one Democrat breaks ranks, Republicans will inevitably claim that opposition to the jobs bill is “bipartisan.” That was the essence of the argument Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made on Tuesday, when he offered to attach the jobs bill to another piece of legislation coming to a vote. He wanted to make the point that Democrats weren’t unified behind the president’s bill.

But whether or not the Democrats have every single member in line is less important than whether they have 50 votes to pass it – because if they have the 50 votes, then the obstacle to enactment won’t be Democrats. It will be Republicans. Remember, the only reason it takes the support of 60 senators, rather than 50, to pass legislation these days is that Republicans have decided to filibuster everything.

And that ought to matter to the voters. Everybody assumes Obama is campaigning hard for his jobs plan primarily to make a point to the voters about who stands for what, in advance of the 2012 elections. That’s probably true. But he’s adopted this posture because Republicans refuse to compromise. And if Republicans start to pay a political price for holding up popular legislation, there’s still a chance they will relent -- and pass legislation before the year is done. 

It wouldn't be the whole proposal, of course, or anything close to it. But it might be something worthwhile.

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