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By: The ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON – Congress on Friday approved legislation renewing a payroll tax cut for 160 million workers and jobless benefits for millions more, backing the main items on President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda in a rare burst of Washington bipartisanship.
The Senate approved the $143 billion measure on a bipartisan 60-36 vote minutes after the House approved it by a sweeping 293-132 vote. Obama is expected to sign it shortly after returning from a West Coast fundraising swing.
Under the bill, workers would continue to receive a 2 percentage point increase in their paychecks, and people out of work for more than six months would keep jobless benefits averaging about $300 a week, steps that Obama says will help support the fragile recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
It would also head off a steep cut in reimbursements for physicians who treat Medicare patients.
The tax cuts, jobless coverage and higher doctors’ payments would all continue through 2012.
Passage of the legislation hands Obama a victory over objections from many Republicans who oppose it but were eager to wipe the issue from the election-year agenda.
It also clears away a political headache for House Republicans, who blocked a two-month extension of the tax cut and jobless coverage in late December, only to retreat quickly under a buzz saw of opposition from conservative and GOP leaders from around the country.
With that history, Republicans seemed ready to get the fight behind them and change the subject for the rest of this election year.
“We’re dumb, but we’re not stupid,” McCain told reporters after he voted. “We did not want to repeat the debacle of last December. It’s not that complicated.”
Opposition was particularly strong in the Senate, where Republicans opposed the measure by a 2-1 margin. In the House, however, a solid majority of Republicans backed the measure despite reservations about its $89 billion impact on the budget deficit over the coming decade.
And Republicans said the final deal, significantly changed from a tea party-backed measure that passed in December, was the best Republicans could get.