WASHINGTON - - Troubled by the rising jobless rate, President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress are assembling a jobs package that would devote billions of dollars to projects meant to put people back on payrolls in 2010 and keep them working.
Discussions over the scale of the bill are fluid, but lawmakers said the intent was to move swiftly and get a jobs bill to Obama's desk as early as January.
The renewed push to create jobs is driven by a recognition that the $787 billion stimulus program enacted in February is not a sufficient remedy for an unemployment rate that stands at 10.2 percent. Nearly 16 million people were unemployed as of October, and 3.49 million jobs have been lost since January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The stimulus boosted employment but "did it in a way that was not as highly visible as a lot of people would like," said Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, one of the House members devising the jobs bill. "It did so in somewhat of a scattershot approach - a job here and a job there, trickled out over time. ... Far too many Americans are without a job, and far too many more are worried about what tomorrow is going to bring."
Congressional aides said the new program could cost tens of billions of dollars. Democratic House members who were disappointed that the stimulus wasn't larger said they will press for a substantial spending plan this time.
"I hope we don't play around the edges with this and we do what will work. Invest the money now," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. "We have to create jobs, and we have to create them right away."
Lawmakers are considering myriad ways to accelerate job growth. In interviews, they mentioned road projects that can be counted on to employ people right away; loans to small businesses; incentives to companies that agree to manufacture products in the U.S; and special partnerships in which government tries to avert private-sector layoffs by picking up a share of employee wages.
House members also are considering a plan to funnel aid to state and local governments with the assurance the money would be used to preserve jobs. Senate aides said the jobs plan would give priority to labor-intensive "brick-and-mortar" projects.
It is unclear how much of the effort would be financed through deficit spending. Rising deficits are becoming an increasing source of worry; this year, the deficit is projected to be $1.58 trillion.
Faced with so much red ink, lawmakers are exploring various payment mechanisms. Congressional aides said they might tap money from the fund used to bail out financial institutions. Other approaches include a 25-cent tax on each stock transaction, although Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has expressed reservations about that idea.
Even if the plan inflates the deficit in the near term, the White House appears willing to accept that outcome if the payoff is more jobs.
Asked if the deficit constrains the administration's options, one White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "No question that it's a delicate balance, but there's also no question that we've got to do more to address the jobs situation and to boost opportunities for middle-class families."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said this week that if the public were given a choice between a job and an uptick in the deficit, the answer would be easy.
"The American people have an anger about the growth of the deficit because they're not getting anything for it," she said in a conference call.
Bipartisan support appears to be absent. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said the stimulus should sour people on costly jobs programs: "The case must be made as to why you want to borrow money we don't have. And how do you make that case given the track record of the failed stimulus bill?"
Discussions about job creation are playing out in both the House and Senate. On the Senate side, Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are heading the effort.
The House hopes to pass a jobs bill in December. Senate aides say it is doubtful the measure would be enacted until a health care bill is passed, perhaps by the time Obama delivers his State of the Union address in January.
Administration aides are talking to lawmakers about the bill and cooperating with the project.
"Folks who have their jobs face a level of insecurity that is unacceptably high from the administration's perspective," said the Obama administration official. "So the president has tasked us to generate ideas and work with Congress on future job-growth measures."
Having been preoccupied with passing a health care bill, the White House is eager to demonstrate it is sensitive to the economic hardship Americans face. To that end, the White House will host a jobs summit Dec. 3. And the next day, Obama will travel to Allentown, Pa. - the first stop in a kind of economic "listening tour."
The White House is committing its energy to health care overhaul although, polls show, that is not as important to most Americans as an economic recovery that will yield jobs. Democrats in control of the White House and Congress can't afford to look out of touch with midterm elections looming next year.
A Senate Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Democrats have to address the No. 1 concern of their constituents - and that is, by a long shot, jobs. We want to show we get it - that we're responsible and in tune."
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