In a rare bipartisan move, Congress approved a sweeping $150 billion package to extend a payroll tax holiday, jobless benefits and Medicare doctor payments today, giving the Obama administration a key policy win.
Extending the payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans has been a top priority for President Barack Obama since he unveiled a larger jobs program last summer, and the vote today was the capstone of a months-long battle to extend the holiday through the end of the year.
The Senate approved the deal, 60-36. Fourteen Republicans voted in favor of the package, while five Democrats and one Independent voted against it.
“It’s a miracle,” Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said of final passage, as he and other Senators left the Capitol for Presidents Day recess.
But not all Members, especially Democrats, feel that way.
The legislation, which cleared the House on a bipartisan vote of 293-132 earlier in the day, was paid for in part by forcing new federal employees to pay more into their pensions.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), a conferee who allowed the package to move to the full Congress on Thursday, voted against the deal.
“I voted no for a couple of reasons. The primary reason was that the unemployment insurance was offset in large part by federal employee additional contribution, which I think is just wrong,” Cardin said.
“I also felt that the lack of balance in not offsetting the tax cut and requiring emergency unemployment insurance to be offset is not right,” Cardin continued.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Cardin’s Maryland colleague, also voted against the deal.
Cardin had worked at the eleventh hour with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to amend the conference report language to exempt current federal workers. Cardin and Van Hollen, who made a pact to work in lock step throughout the process, both signed the conference report but voted against the final deal.
Many Republicans voted against the package because they were upset that the $100 billion tax cut was not paid for with other spending cuts. In the end, neither Democrats nor Republicans put up enough votes to pass it alone.
In the Senate, most Republicans opposed the measure but declined to attempt a filibuster. Like the House, there was bipartisan opposition in the Senate to the measure for a variety of reasons.
“I understand this is a compromise and not everyone likes everything in here,” House Way and Means Chairman Dave Camp said on the House floor.
The Michigan Republican co-chaired the conference committee with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and after a few public hearings, the two men and their staffs hashed out the agreement behind closed doors with the aid of leadership.
The bill extends the payroll tax holiday for 160 million Americans and long-term unemployment insurance benefits until the end of 2012, as well as pushes off a scheduled cut to reimbursements for doctors who treat Medicare patients until the end of the year.
Notably, House Republicans waived their three-day rule in order to bring the bill to the floor today instead of Saturday.
Senate Republicans have said they are chafed about not being more involved in the discussions.