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Senate considers aid for jobless vets, contractors

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 7 2011 10:45 p.m. MST

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Monday to temporarily set aside its partisan standoff over President Barack Obama's jobs plan and move toward giving a modest economic spark to two potent interest groups: veterans and businesses.

In a 94-1 roll call, senators voted to start debating a measure repealing a requirement that federal, state and many local governments withhold 3 percent of their payments to contractors. That bill has been lobbied by a wide swath of industry groups large and small and has no significant opposition.

By the time the Senate approves the legislation — perhaps later this week — Democrats planned to add language backed by both parties offering tax breaks to companies that hire veterans and providing vets with employment counseling and other job-hunting services.

Monday's one-sided vote signaled that barring an unexpected twist, the Senate was likely to send the overall measure to the House, which returns from a recess next week.

The tax credits, up to $9,600 for companies hiring disabled veterans who have been jobless at least six months, would represent the first — though tiny — piece of Obama's $447 billion jobs proposal to be approved by Congress, assuming Senate and then House passage.

The expected cooperation contrasted with the two parties' battling at a time when persistent 9 percent unemployment is keeping 14 million Americans out of work and looming as the dominant issue in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. It also masked the divisions between Democrats and Republicans over the keystones of Obama's jobs plan — spending huge sums to repair roads, hire teachers and give workers and companies breaks on the payroll tax.

Not coincidentally, the measure was beginning to move toward approval just ahead of Friday's Veterans Day celebrations, when lawmakers stream home for speeches and parades. And even as the two sides seemed ready to cooperate, they exchanged partisan slings over lawmakers' refusal so far to approve the rest of the president's jobs proposal.

"There's no good reason to oppose this bill, not one," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden as he promoted his proposed aid for veterans. "Our veterans did their jobs. It's time for Congress to do theirs."

On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cited Republican opposition that has sunk the jobs legislation so far this year and taunted, "Now we will see whether Senate Republicans are willing to put jobs for veterans at risk as well. I certainly hope they are not.

Firing back, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., complained that the Republican-run House has approved nearly two dozen jobs measures that the Democratic-led Senate has ignored. The reason, he said: "So the president can go around on a bus and blame Congress for the country's problems."

McConnell added, "It's only a matter of time before the American people catch on to the Democrats' refusal to act."

The White House says veterans who have served since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have a 12 percent unemployment rate, three points above the overall national average.

To address that, the Democratic amendment will include Obama's proposal to create a new tax credit of $2,400 for companies hiring veterans who have been jobless at least four weeks, and $5,600 for vets out of work at least six months. In addition, he proposed doubling the existing tax credit that employers get for hiring a disabled veteran unemployed at least half a year from $4,800 to $9,600.

According to a White House estimate last September, these credits would cost $90 million — a minute sliver of Obama's overall plans for fighting joblessness.

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