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Jobless benefits OK'd

Baltimore Sun

After months of wrangling, the Senate on Wednesday approved a $138 billion spending bill that would extend jobless benefits, help the states pay for Medicare and extend a bundle of tax measures designed to stimulate the economy.

The measure - which must still be reconciled with a House-passed version - also extends tax cuts for college tuition, the program that helps laid-off workers keep their job-based health insurance, and tax breaks for research and development that has long been important to the nation's high-tech industries.

In addition, it delays a threatened 21 percent cutback in the payments doctors receive for treating Medicare patients.

The vote came as Democrats, increasingly anxious about the November congressional elections, were stepping up their efforts to deal with the stubbornly high level of unemployment.

"Extending these tax cuts and the critical safety-net programs in this bill will give businesses the tax certainty they need to move forward and families the support they need to make ends meet," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

"Getting Americans back to work is a critical priority and extending the tax cuts and benefits in this bill will help build the stable environment we need for job creation."

Republicans lambasted the Democrats on spending - and late last month, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a short-term extension of some of the programs, forcing some to lapse. But the measure was approved 62-36 with six Republicans voting yes and one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voting no.

The Republicans who voted for the bill were Christopher Bond, R-Mo., Susan Collins, R- Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, David Vitter, R-La., and George Voinovich, R- Ohio.

Speaking for the opposition, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Senate's No. 3 Republican, said, "Congress can't keep coming up with grand ideas like this $100 billion jobs bill, pretending it can add to our alarming debt without hurting the economy."

The bill includes $25 billion in new Medicaid funds to help financially hard-pressed states pay for health care for the poor. States received a funding boost in the economic stimulus bill passed last year. The new legislation would extend the funding through mid-2011.

Crop producers who suffered losses because of drought would receive $150 million in disaster assistance, with a substantial part likely to go to California growers of fruit, vegetables and nuts. The money was added at the behest of the state's Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

A tax break to encourage domestic film and television production is also included.

The bill is only partially paid for, including $24 billion that would be raised by closing a loophole in tax credits for biofuel producers. But that $24 billion was already earmarked for health care reform, and cannot be used to finance both of the bills.

It remains unclear whether the House will take up the Senate version or turn the two versions over to a House-Senate conference committee.

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