The U.S. Senate passed legislation on Saturday extending a Social Security payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for just two months, handing President Barack Obama a partial victory while setting the stage for another fight in February.
It also brought a peaceful end to a year-long battle over spending by passing a $1 trillion-plus catchall budget bill that wraps together the day-to-day budgets for 10 Cabinet departments and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House passed the measure on Friday, and the White House has signalled that Mr. Obama will sign it.
The renewal of the 2-percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax for 160 million workers and unemployment benefits averaging about $300 a week for the additional millions of people who have been out of work for six months or more is a modest step forward for Mr. Obama’s year-end jobs agenda.
While pleased by the Senate vote, Mr. Obama said on Saturday that “it would be inexcusable for Congress not to further extend this middle class tax cut for the rest of the year” when they return from the holiday recess in January.
He added- “This really isn’t hard. There are plenty of ways to pay for these proposals.”
As a condition for Republican support of the payroll tax measure, Mr. Obama has to accept a provision that forces him to decide within 60 days whether to approve or reject a proposed a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that promises thousands of jobs.
The budget bill, passed 67-32, heads to the White House for Obama’s signature; the payroll tax measure won a 89-10 tally that send it back to the House where many Republicans only reluctantly support it for a vote early next week.
Democratic and Republican leaders opted for the short-term extension of the payroll tax and jobless benefits measure after failing to agree on big enough spending cuts to pay for a full-year renewal. The measure also provides a 60-day reprieve from a scheduled 27 per cent cut in the fees paid to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The $33 billion cost of the measure would be covered by raising fees on new mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The fees, drawn from a Treasury Department housing finance market reform plan, would effectively raise the interest rate on home loans guaranteed by the mortgage giants and the Federal Housing Administration by one-tenth of a percentage point.
The idea is to open up the market to private companies currently priced out by the implicit subsidies of Fannie and Freddie.
The White House says the fee would increase the monthly cost of a typical $200,000 mortgage by almost $17 a month. Over 30 years, the fees would increase the total cost of such a mortgage by more than $5,000.
In contrast, a worker making a $100,000 salary would reap a tax cut of about $330 through the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut.
Officials said that in private talks, the two sides had hoped to reach agreement on the full one-year extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits that Mr. Obama had made the centrepiece of the jobs program he submitted to Congress last fall.
Those efforts failed when the two sides could not agree on enough offsetting cuts to blunt the measure’s impact on the debt.
The failure tees up the issue again for early next year, but it won’t get any easier to agree on spending cuts.
On the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the legislation requires the President to grant a permit unless he makes a determination that it is “not in the national interest.” One senior administration official said the President would almost certainly refuse to grant a permit. The official was not authorized to speak publicly.
The White House on Friday backed away from Mr. Obama’s earlier threat to veto any bill that linked the payroll tax cut extension with a Republican demand for a speedy decision on the proposed 1,700-mile (2,700-kilometer) pipeline.
The President recently announced he was postponing a decision on the much-studied pipeline until after the 2012 election. Environmentalists oppose the project, but several unions support it. The legislation puts the President in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between customary political allies.
The State Department, in an analysis released this summer, said the pipeline project would create up to 6,000 jobs during construction, while developer TransCanada put the total at 20,000 in direct employment.
The pipeline would carry oil from western Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
The spending bill locks in spending cuts that conservative Republicans won from the White House and Democrats earlier in the year.