WASHINGTON — Americans are getting an election-year tax present. Congress voted with rare speed and cooperation Friday to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut for 160 million workers and to renew unemployment benefits for millions more who haven't seen a paycheck in six months.
With lawmakers' ratings in the gutter, the legislation sped through both the House and Senate and was on its way to President Barack Obama, who saluted the quick passage.
Taxpayers have grown accustomed to the 2 percentage point cut in the payroll tax over the past year — around $80 a month for someone earning $50,000 a year — and the reduction now will be continued. So will jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week for the long-term unemployed, though the aid will be cut off sooner than before for many recipients.
Both provisions, which were to expire in less than two weeks, had been extended only two months during a December congressional fight that seared Republicans. They were determined to avoid a repeat in campaign season.
The hard-fought — but ultimately bipartisan — measure contains the core of Obama's jobs agenda and promises to pump more than $100 billion into the economy before Election Day. It hands the president a political victory as well, as Republicans called a tactical retreat in hopes of minimizing the gains for Obama and his Democratic allies.
The Senate approved the measure on a bipartisan 60-36 vote minutes after the House passed it on a sweeping 293-132 vote.
The hope is that the dual measures will inject consumer demand and support a fragile recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The legislation would also protect doctors treating Medicare patients from a steep cut in reimbursements.
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Oklahoma's House members showed the split among Republicans over the legislation. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, voted for the bill. Reps. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and John Sullivan, R-Tulsa, opposed it.
Lankford said he supported the House bill in December that would have extended the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for a year because the costs were offset.
“While it is essential to provide tax relief for the economy, protect Medicare providers and strengthen the safety net, it is not essential that we add another $100 billion to our debt,'' Lankford said.
Cole said the bill approved on Friday was “not the solution I would have preferred, but taxpayers should not be punished because Democrats refuse to agree to sensible spending cuts. In addition to providing certainty to taxpayers, this legislation includes important reforms to prevent abuse of unemployment benefits. Resolving this issue prevents a tax increase for 160 million Americans and allows Congress to focus on saving trillions of dollars.”
Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, the only Democrat in Oklahoma's congressional delegation, voted for the bill on Friday. Both of Oklahoma's senators opposed it.