Friday, February 17, 2012
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress on Friday approved legislation renewing a payroll tax cut for 160 million workers and jobless benefits for millions more, backing the main items on President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda in a rare burst of Washington bipartisanship.
Obama is expected to sign the $143 billion measure shortly after returning from a West Coast fundraising swing.
Under the bill, workers would continue to receive a 2 percentage point increase in their paychecks, and people out of work for more than six months would keep jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week — steps that Obama says will help support the fragile recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Passage of the legislation hands Obama a victory over objections from many Republicans who oppose it but were eager to wipe the issue from the election-year agenda.
It also clears away a political headache for House Republicans, who blocked a two-month extension of the tax cut and jobless coverage in late December, only to retreat quickly under a crush of opposition from conservative and Republican leaders from around the country.
With that history, Republicans seemed ready to get the fight behind them and change the subject for the rest of this election year.
“We’re dumb, but we’re not stupid,” Sen. John McCain told reporters after he voted. “We did not want to repeat the debacle of last December. It’s not that complicated.”
Republicans said the final deal, significantly changed from a tea party-backed measure that passed in December, was the best Republicans could get.
But many Republican lawmakers were upset that the measure would add to the federal deficit and doubted that it would do much to boost the economy.
In a Republican win, coverage for the long-term unemployed would be cut from the current maximum of 99 weeks to a ceiling of 73 weeks by this fall in states with the worst job markets, with most topping out at 63 weeks.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.