WASHINGTON — When the Senate takes up a jobs bill later this month or early in February, the debate will center on whether it really will create jobs and be worth plunging the government tens of billions of dollars further into debt.
Republicans scoff at the "Jobs for Main Street Act" title that House Democrats put on their $174 billion package last month. They refer to it as "son of the stimulus," the $787 billion economic recovery plan of nearly a year ago that they say was ineffective at producing jobs.
In its last vote of 2009, the House narrowly passed the bill, 217-212, without a single Republican supporter.
Democrats tick off the job prospects from the House bill's $75 billion in infrastructure and public sector spending: tens of thousands of new construction jobs, 5,500 more police officers, 250,000 summer jobs for disadvantaged youth, 14,000 part-time jobs for parks and forestry workers.
"Why don't we just put everyone in the United States on the federal government payroll and call it a day?" counters Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican.
House Democrats diverted $75 billion from the Wall Street bailout fund to offset some of the costs. Opponents said that amounted to a shell game because unused bailout money is supposed to be used to reduce the deficit, which hit $1.4 trillion in the 2009 budget year.
The Senate, however, has less of an appetite for another costly round of economic stimulus measures, particularly with a vote on tap for Jan. 20 to again raise the ceiling on the government's total debt just a month after upping it to $12.4 trillion.
Conspicuously absent from the House plan were President Barack Obama's proposals to attack unemployment through tax credits for small businesses that create jobs and for homeowners who make their dwellings more energy efficient.
A job-creating tax credit for small businesses has support among some Democrats in the Senate, even though critics fear it may be too complex to work.
"Small business people have too much to do just to keep their businesses afloat to try and figure out some fancy, complex credit," Lawrence Lindsey, an economic adviser to former President George W. Bush, told a Democratic panel last month.
But Gene Sperling, an adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, said tax credits would empower growing small businesses.
"If these have even a marginal incentive on even a few ... employers, the bang for the buck in terms of job creation would be one of the highest of any of the types of incentives that we've had," Sperling said.
The job creation issue is complicated. Much of the money in the House bill goes to programs that may stimulate the economy but don't appear to directly put people to work.
There's $41 billion to extend unemployment benefits for six months and $12.3 billion to extend a health insurance subsidy for people who have lost their jobs. There's extension of a child tax credit for poor families, $23.5 billion to help states cover Medicaid costs to provide health care coverage to the poor and $23 billion so states can support some 250,000 education jobs over the next two years. An additional $2.8 billion goes to clean water and environmental restoration projects.
Even the investment in "shovel-ready" highway and bridge projects may not immediately translate into a reduction in the nation's 10 percent unemployment rate.
Republicans cited government figures showing that, as of Sept. 30, only 9 percent of $27.5 billion for highways in the first stimulus bill had been spent. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that of the $39 billion in the new House jobs bill directed to the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, only $1.7 billion will get spent before next October.
A lot of the money "hasn't even gotten out of Washington yet," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House's second-ranked Republican. "Why is it still here if it was designed to create jobs?"
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said some 8,000 highway and transit projects — more than half those designated under last February's stimulus bill — are under way, creating or sustaining 210,000 direct jobs. When indirect jobs are included, that number reaches 630,000, he said.
The low federal spending rate, committee officials said, is because the treasury outlay comes at the end of the process, after the contractor bills the state and the state bills Washington.
Dan DuBray, spokesman for the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, said his agency will have no problem putting to work the $100 million it would receive under the jobs bill to provide clean drinking water to rural areas. "Projects in Reclamation are much akin to planes waiting on the taxiway waiting to take off."
Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, agreed that "a lot of jobs" have been saved by the stimulus act, although in many cases federal money is basically replacing lower levels of private or state investment. The unemployment rate in the construction industry remains at about 19 percent, almost double the national level.
The stimulus is "a needed shot in the arm, but the real solution is a long-term highway and transit investment bill," Jeanneret said. Congress has put off consideration of a six-year $450 billion infrastructure measure to replace the highway and transit act that expired in September.
The CBO has estimated that employment was 600,000 to 1.6 million higher in the third quarter of 2009 because of the stimulus act.