Fast vote: Congress sends payroll tax cut to Obama

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 17 2012 1:51 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama greets the crowd upon his arrival at Paine Field, in Everett, Wash., Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. Obama is outlining new steps to boost U.S. exports during a tour to a Boeing assembly plant in Everett, calling on Congress to continue financing a national export credit agency crucial to a goal of doubling exports by 2014. He was promoting foreign trade and manufacturing at the end of a three-day trip.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress swiftly approved legislation Friday renewing a payroll tax cut for 160 million American 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.

The Senate approved the $143 billion measure on a 60-36 vote minutes after the House approved it by a sweeping 293-132 vote. Obama is expected to sign it shortly after returning from a West Coast fundraising swing.

On Friday in an appearance at a Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., Obama gave lawmakers a verbal fist bump.

"It is amazing what happens when Congress focuses on doing the right thing instead of just playing politics," Obama said. "This was a good example, and Congress should take pride in it."

In fact, Obama's jobs agenda had politics woven into it, including campaign-style rallies and news coverage that — along with the GOP presidential primary — have coincided with a boost in his poll numbers.

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 a fragile recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

It would also head off a steep cut in reimbursements for physicians who treat Medicare patients.

The tax cuts, jobless coverage and higher doctors' payments would all continue through 2012.

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 buzz saw of opposition from conservative and GOP 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," McCain told reporters after he voted. "We did not want to repeat the debacle of last December. It's not that complicated."

"I think everyone learned a lot from the end-of-the-year stuff," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Everything doesn't have to be a fight." Republicans, Reid added, have "opposed virtually everything we've tried to do."

"I think they came to the conclusion that that hasn't worked out very well," Reid said.

Opposition was stronger in the Senate, where Republicans voted against the measure by a 2-1 margin. Five Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., opposed the measure, while 14 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, backed it.

In the House, however, a solid majority of Republicans backed the measure despite reservations about its $89 billion impact on the budget deficit over the coming decade.

And Republicans said the final deal, significantly changed from a tea party-backed measure that passed in December, was the best Republicans could get.

"We don't control Washington. Democrats still control Washington — they control the Senate, and they control the White House," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the top House negotiator on the measure. "A divided government must still govern." Camp cited stricter job search requirements for people receiving unemployment benefits and other reforms to the program as wins for conservatives.

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