WASHINGTON DIGEST: Despite misgivings, lawmakers keep payroll tax cut

WASHINGTON — Congress last week voted to extend a payroll tax cut for 160 million workers through 2012, ending a dispute over a portion of President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan.

The bill also continues the program of unemployment benefits for people out of work longer than six months while scaling it back over the year.

It also averts a pending 27.4 percent decrease in Medicare payments to doctors.

The 10-month extension of the programs was made possible after Republicans dropped opposition to borrowing in order to cover a portion of their cost. Newly hired federal workers would pay for part of it through their pension contributions.

Proponents said the bill would extend relief to millions of Americans still struggling through a difficult economy.

“Numerous economists have said the worst thing we can do right now is raise taxes on hardworking Americans,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.

Extending the payroll tax holiday through the rest of the year is expected to save someone earning $50,000 a year about $800. By year’s end, long-term unemployed would be able to draw benefits for as many as 73 weeks. That is down from the current 99-week ceiling in states with the worst job markets.

The bill was opposed by some Republicans who objected to increasing the deficit by as much as $100 billion. Some Democrats opposed it because of its impact on federal workers.

Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack said he was conflicted but ended up voting for it along with 145 other Republicans. One hundred forty-seven Democrats voted for it as well.

“In the end, it’s just hard to vote against people keeping more of their money,” Womack said.

The House approved the bill, 293-132.

Reps. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Joe Heck, R-Nev., voted for it.

The Senate approved the bill, 60-36.

Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted for the bill.

HOUSE VOTES ON OIL, PIPELINE

House lawmakers approved a plan to expand offshore drilling, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.

Additional revenues generated from these programs would be used for road and bridge construction. The Senate, however, is not expected to consider the bill.

House debate over the bill fell largely along partisan divides. Republicans argued that the Keystone pipeline is a shovel-ready project that would provide needed jobs and would help reduce the nation’s dependence on oil from the Middle East. Democrats expressed concern about potential environmental impacts and questioned the economic benefits.

The pipeline would be used to transport oil from the Canadian border to Gulf Coast refineries. The State Department recently rejected the project saying they needed more time to make the decision than the 60 days Congress provided.

“At a time when oil supplies can be cut off by hostile nations, we should be expanding domestic energy exploration and production to reduce our reliance on foreign oil while putting people back to work,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

The bill was approved 237-187. Amodei and Heck voted for it. Berkley opposed it.

Democrats offered a series of amendments aimed at raising doubts about the project.

“I can’t find a steel mill in south­western Pennsylvania that’s making steel for the Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, I’m having trouble finding a single U.S. steelmaker that has any orders for any of this pipe,” said Rep. Michael Doyle, D-Pa.

Welspun Tubular in Little Rock, Ark., is providing much of the pipe for Keystone but is using steel imported from India, Doyle said. An amendment Doyle offered to require at least 75 percent of the pipeline to be made from U.S. steel was defeated, 234-193.

Amodei and Heck voted against the amendment. Berkley voted for it.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or at 202-783-1760.

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