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Why can't Congress just get along?

By Ed Hornick, CNN
The prospect of President Obama's full jobs bill passing in Congress faced a tough road ahead.
The prospect of President Obama's full jobs bill passing in Congress faced a tough road ahead.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama's jobs plan is expected to cost $450 billion
  • Many items in the plan, which have had bipartisan support in the past, are now a problem
  • Political experts say the continuing partisan divide is hurting the American people

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama and Congress are going through another act of the political theater they have been staging since Republicans regained control of the House last year.

The Senate took a procedural vote Tuesday night on Obama's $450 billion jobs bill. It failed to get the 60 votes needed to go the floor.

Democrats knew that it wouldn't, but it will give them another example with which to accuse Republicans of playing politics with the economy. And Republicans will accuse Democrats of doing the same by putting the bill to a vote to begin with.

"It's pathetic but not unexpected. This is really what we've come to expect from this divided Congress," said John Avlon, an independent and CNN political contributor. "What's especially frustrating to folks who view this with a sense of historic perspective is that we've had divided governments that worked fairly well before. But I think the unfortunate hyper-partisanship is clearly affecting our ability to work together."

Much of the bill is made up of proposals that Democrats and Republicans have supported in the past, including an extension of the current payroll tax cut and a new tax credit for businesses, among other things. But Republicans in both chambers have come out against the bill as a whole, effectively declaring it dead on arrival. They have, though, said certain items would pass.

Democrats' Plan B is to do just that: break up the bill into as many as a half-dozen smaller pieces of legislation they hope to pass in the coming months, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

The strategy is aimed at either winning passage of the individual components or pressuring the Republicans to explain to voters why they will wouldn't support them, the aide said. But that's after they put this measure to a vote they know will fail.

A top Republican said the president was "embracing conflict." House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama is "running around the country campaigning on a bill that he knows won't pass -- he can't even get it out of the Senate right now -- rather than working with us on ideas that we agree on that would actually help create jobs."

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Obama has specifically called out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for stalling efforts to get his plan at least up for a vote.

"I'd like Mr. Cantor to come down here to Dallas and explain what exactly in this jobs bill does he not believe in," Obama said. "At least put this jobs bill up for a vote so that the entire country knows exactly where members of Congress stand. Put your cards on the table."

Read more on the jobs bill

Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring responded with a statement that said if "House Republicans sent our plan for America's job creators to the president, would he promise not to veto it in its entirety?"

He added that House Republicans have different ideas on how to grow the economy and create jobs, "but that shouldn't prevent us from trying to find areas of common ground with the president. ... That is precisely why ... Cantor has given his word to the president that the House will pass portions of his jobs bill in the next month."

Republicans are particularly against a provision recently added by Senate Democrats that would pay for the bill through a 5.6% surtax on annual incomes over $1 million. GOP leaders have accused the president of engaging in "class warfare" for political reasons.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the the Democrats' proposed tax on millionaires would raise an estimated $453 billion, more than enough to pay for the jobs bill.

The "party of no"?

Avlon said the Democrats' adage that the Republican Party is the "party of no" is not just a slogan anymore; it's become reality.

"Republicans accusing (Democrats) of playing politics ought to look in the mirror if they are simply voting against things because they come from the president," Avlon said. "I think you're playing with a little bit of political dynamite if you think obstructionism will be good politics in the face of this economy."

He added, "There's an old joke that every bill in Washington is a jobs bill: It's your job."

Democrats, though, are also playing politics by painting Republicans as the "party of no" to show why they should be re-elected in 2012 -- and exactly why Congress has some of the lowest ratings in polling history, added Avlon, author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said that what Republicans are doing is "pretty transparent."

"They have no incentive to actually decrease unemployment before the next election. They certainly look like they are trying to obstruct job formation," he said. "If the unemployment rate is still around 9% a year from now, it's good for them. The incentives for obstruction are strong. The incentives for doing anything that actually might reduce unemployment are pretty weak."

Republicans beat back that notion, saying the jobs plan is misguided. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called the bill a rehash of Obama's 2009 economic stimulus plan.

"It reminds me of an old country saying at home that there's no education in the second kick of a mule," McConnell recently told Fox. "Our view is we've been there, we've done that, we know that doesn't work, and we shouldn't do it again."

About 2012 ...

A Washington Post/ABC News Poll taken September 29-October 2 found that 52% of respondents approved of the president's plan, while 36% opposed it.

So what can Obama do besides try to sell it to the public if he can't sell it to Republicans?

"From Obama's side, all he can do is look like he's focusing on the issue and giving proposals on what he's doing about it, that they're not crazy, and show some promise of working regardless of whether they get passed or not," Jacobson said.

Even if the bill isn't passed, Obama can run his re-election campaign on the jobs plan, he said.

"If parts of it do pass and they help, it does help him. But he certainly has to be seen pushing really hard to do something by far what most Americans think is the most important issue out there that will help shape their votes in 2012," Jacobson added.

On the campaign trail, Obama has been echoing President Truman's successful 1948 re-election strategy of running against the "do-nothing" Congress.

"If Congress does something, then I can't run against a do-nothing Congress," Obama said last week. "But "if Congress does nothing, I think the American people will run them out of town."

It's the upcoming election, Jacobson said, that is at the heart of Republican "obstructionism."

"Republicans are playing to their base," Jacobson said. "Half of them are worried about tea party challenges in the primary than the general election."

He added that Republicans are thinking about what public sentiments are going to be in November 2012: "They don't like Obama, they want to replace him, and they see a good chance at doing it. And they certainly aren't going to do anything to improve his prospects if they can help it."

Obama's campaign is trying to reassure some wavering Democrats -- many of whom will be vulnerable in next year's elections -- to back the bill.

The Obama campaign released a memo by senior strategist David Axelrod offering this reassurance: "There is no Republican alternative that would create jobs now."

The memo, filled with poll results, said that "the American people have rallied around Obama's call to pass this plan" and that "after 3 weeks of advocacy by the President, support (for the jobs bill) has grown by nearly 10%."

The Washington Post/ABC News Poll also found that 47% of independents supported the jobs bill.

In the end, it all comes down to helping the hard-hit middle class -- and that's getting something done now instead of after the election, Avlon said.

"The middle class has been getting squeezed for a long time. And now I think there's a sense of disgust and cynicism about Congress' inability to get their act together."

Most economists agree that jobs would be created with the new infrastructure spending, targeted tax cuts and payments to local and state governments in Obama's plan. But there's no consensus on getting the biggest bang for the buck.

A temporary tax credit of a few thousand bucks usually is not enough incentive to bring on a new worker, who costs tens of thousands of dollars in salary and benefits. Credits often come with many restrictions and paperwork requirements, which further diminish their allure, said Patrick O'Keefe, director of economic research for J.H. Cohn, an accounting firm.

And they don't address a key problem facing companies today: a lack of demand for their products and services.

But others thinks credits might spur companies to accelerate their plans to boost payroll, said Jesse Rothstein, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former Council of Economic Advisers member.

"A credit might give an employer an incentive to staff back up a little sooner," Rothstein said.

Economists give similar mixed reviews on help for local governments and public works projects. The stimulative potential of the Obama plan is hindered by the fact that a large part of plan's spending is needed just to extend the payroll tax cut, which has boosted the size of workers' paychecks this year, and an extension of unemployment insurance.

The expiration of those programs could slow the economy. But at the same time, their extension will not provide any additional stimulus.

"You don't get any extra kick from those things. It just means you avoid the drag of their expiration," said Nigel Gault, the chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. "That's not going to jumpstart anything."

Republicans want to roll back the financial services regulation under the Dodd-Frank bill passed last year to spur growth.

"To achieve a more sustainable impact on the job market, a reduced burden of regulation would significantly help business confidence," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute. She picked that as her second choice, behind more federal aid for states and local governments.

"Funds to prevent layoffs of teachers and other public workers might have the greatest immediate impact."

But many economists think getting rid of those regulations would have the least effect on hiring.

"Dodd-Frank is a mess, but it is a problem for financial markets more than labor markets," said David Wyss, senior fellow at Brown University.

The plan's prospects in a sharply polarized Congress -- particularly with the 2012 presidential primary season looming -- appear dim at best. Some Republicans dismiss it, saying it amounts to little more than a second round of Obama's 2009 stimulus plan.

In a bid to attract Republican votes, the White House plans to offer ways to raise revenue or cut spending to pay for the new spending. While some proposals, such as payroll tax cuts, are intended to appeal to Republicans, things like spending on infrastructure projects are political longshots.

CNN's Ted Barrett, Kate Bolduan, Alan Silverleib, Martina Stewart and Jessica Yellin and CNNMoney's Jennifer Liberto, Tami Luhby, Charles Riley and Jeanne Sahadi contributed to this report.

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