By Jim Abrams
WASHINGTON — House members returned to steamy Washington in a rare August callback to clear a $26 billion jobs bill with unmistakable implications for the midterm elections.
House Democratic leaders, intent on showing disenchanted voters their commitment to economic recovery, insisted on the one-day session to pass legislation they said would save the jobs of more than 300,000 teachers and other public service workers. Republicans shot back that Democrats would spend more money the government doesn’t have while bowing to the wishes of teachers’ unions.
President Barack Obama urged the House to send him the bill for his signature. Flanked by two teachers facing potential job loss in a Rose Garden event, Obama said that failing to pass the bill would set the country back at a time when it needs to be moving forward.
Lawmakers rushing back from town hall meetings and vacations also addressed another issue that will be on voters’ minds in November, passing by voice vote a $600 million bill to shore up surveillance and security along the troubled U.S.-Mexican border.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi convened the recess session because the Senate passed both the $26 billion jobs bill and the border security bill last Thursday, after the House had already departed for its six-week summer break.
The legislation provides $10 billion to school districts to rehire laid-off teachers or ensure that more teachers won’t be let go before the new school year begins. The money could keep more than 160,000 teachers, including 16,000 in California and 14,000 in Texas, on the job, according to Education Department estimates.
The other half of the bill has $16 billion for six more months of increased Medicaid payments to the states. That would free up money for states to meet other budget priorities, including keeping more than 150,000 police officers and other public workers on the payroll. Some three-fifths of states have already factored in the federal money in drawing up their budgets for the current fiscal year.
The National Governors Association, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the states’ estimated budget shortfall for the 2010-12 period is $116 billion, and the extended Medicaid payments are “the best way to help states bridge the gap between their worst fiscal year and the beginning of recovery.”
But House Republican leader John Boehner contended, “The American people don’t want more Washington ‘stimulus’ spending — especially in the form of a payoff to union bosses and liberal special interests.”
“We are not bankrupting the country fast enough and so we need to come back and spend even more,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Cal.
Pelosi responded, “Why wouldn’t House Republicans want to keep 310,000 teachers, first responders and private-sector workers on the job instead of on the unemployment lines?”
And Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said that 45 governors, Republicans as well as Democrats, asked Congress for help to avert massive layoffs.
“We’re talking about several hundred thousand” jobs at stake,” he told C-SPAN Tuesday. “The notion that this is just unions, no,” he said. “I think this is pressure from the public who want their teachers teaching.”
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said she found the Republican argument “insulting and outrageous … averting layoffs is about ensuring that kids have their teachers and good people have their jobs.”
Democrats stress that the bill is paid for and won’t add to the deficit, but that too is a source of contention.
Republicans objected to raising some $10 billion by raising taxes on some U.S.-based multinational companies. Advocates for the poor were protesting a provision to accelerate the phasing out of an increase in food stamp payments implemented in last year’s economic recovery bill. Under the measure, payments would return to pre-stimulus rates in 2014, saving almost $12 billion.
James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said that would be cutting benefits for some 40 million people now receiving food stamps. “Those families will be hungrier and less able to buy healthy diets.”
Several Democrats have said they’ll try to find another way of paying for the bill. “I would prefer other offsets,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the House Democratic leadership. “We do have additional time to identify other offsets.”
Finding ways to keep the border security bill budget neutral also held up action. Republicans sought to take unused money from the economic stimulus act, an idea rejected by Democrats, who eventually prevailed with a plan to raise fees for companies that import foreign workers into the United States by obtaining H-1B and other visas for highly skilled workers.
The $600 million border security bill includes money to deploy 1,500 new enforcement agents along the border and make greater use of unmanned aerial drones for surveillance. Because of rules that revenue bills must originate in the House, the bill might have to go back to the Senate before being sent to Obama for his signature.