WASHINGTON — The Democrats' jobs agenda regained momentum Thursday as the House passed one measure designed to boost employment and the Senate pressed forward on a separate and more ambitious bill.
The House voted 217-201 to approve a $15 billion measure that would give tax breaks to companies for hiring new employees. Six Republicans joined the vast majority of Democrats in supporting the bill, which also includes a one-year reauthorization of the law governing federal highway funding, as well as an expansion of the Build America Bonds program and a provision allowing companies to write off equipment purchases.
More than 30 Democrats voted against the measure, as liberals complained that it was too small and too focused on tax cuts rather than on spending.
The Senate passed the bill last week on a bipartisan vote. But because the House altered the measure, the revised bill would have to be approved by the Senate before President Barack Obama could sign it into law. The Senate is expected to take it up again next week.
The House approved a $154 billion jobs bill in December. It was full of spending on infrastructure projects and initiatives to help the poor, and some House Democrats want the Senate to take that approach rather than moving their jobs agenda in bits and pieces.
The Senate, meanwhile, considered amendments Thursday on a $150 billion jobs measure that includes one-year extensions of unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits, plus renewals of a variety of expiring tax breaks supported by Republicans and lobbyists.
Obama urges Democrats to support health care reform
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama summoned more than a dozen House Democrats to the White House Thursday, pleading with them to put aside their qualms, seize a historic moment and vote for his massive health care overhaul.
It's the opportunity of a generation, he told them, and a chance to revive the party's agenda after his rough first year in office.
In back-to-back meetings in the Oval Office and Roosevelt Room, Obama urged uneasy rank-and-file moderates and progressives to focus on the positives rather than their deep disappointment with parts of the bill. The lawmakers said Obama assured them the legislation was merely the first step, and he promised to work with them in the future to improve its provisions.
"The president very pointedly talked about how important this is historically," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., "how he needs our help." Obama told them that "this is an opportunity, it'll give us momentum" on other issues, the congressman said.
Cranking up the pressure, congressional leaders said they were hoping for votes on the legislation in as soon as two or three weeks.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters he believes the House is on schedule to approve the landmark legislation by March 18, when the president leaves for an Asian trip, and he can sign it into law "shortly thereafter."
In another event at the White House, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius met with the chiefs of four major health insurance companies and asked them to provide justifications for double-digit price increases that have angered consumers. Health insurers, who have blamed rising medical costs for their own price rises, made no final commitments about what they would provide.
Obama advisers hope that highlighting the rate hikes will put pressure not just on insurers to lower rates, but also on Congress to agree on a final bill.