Congress Passes $150 billion Benefit Package
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Congress Passes $150 billion Benefit Package

Congressional negotiators put their final signatures late Wednesday on an economic plan worth more than $150 billion that would extend a payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits. A key roadblock was overcome when the lawmakers agreed to require new federal workers to contribute more to their pension plans, clearing the way for a majority of the House-Senate conference committee to approve the deal just past 11 p.m., aides in both parties said.

A vote could come as early as Friday, the last act in a five-month battle over President Obama’s proposed jobs plan.

With a few nettlesome details holding up the bill late Wednesday, lawmakers made final touches to the proposal, which would include a 10-month extension of a payroll tax holiday that lets the average worker keep an extra $1,000 a year. The deal also would extend unemployment benefits through the end of the year. Lawmakers expressed optimism that they would settle disputes over how to pay for the package.

“If the agreement comes together like I expect it will, the House should vote this week,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters.

The emerging plan is about one-third the size of the one Obama proposed. It would combine the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits — key pieces of Obama’s nearly $450 billion proposal in September. It includes a temporary fix for Medicare’s payment plan, which, left unchecked, would lead to a 27 percent drop in fees paid to doctors who treat elderly patients.

The final talks, led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.), were hung up on the need to find about $50 billion in spending cuts and new revenue to offset the $50 billion cost of the unemployment extension and the Medicare change.

The plan needs to win approval from a majority of senators on the conference committee and a majority of House members. The Senate side was at a standstill late Wednesday. Senate Republicans demanded a provision that would exempt physician-owned hospitals from portions of the 2010 health-care law, a move Democrats opposed. However, aides in both parties said, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) opposed a key provision that would require federal workers to contribute an additional $15 billion to their pension plans over the next decade.

This left the conference committee one senator shy of the number needed to sign off on a final agreement. Aides hoped to broker a compromise late Wednesday or Thursday.

Other provisions appeared to be ironed out. An additional $5 billion would be cut from a fund created under the health-care law to help primary-care physicians prevent illness — a fund that the president singled out for a similar cut in the budget for fiscal 2013 that he announced Monday.

One of the final disputes, according to aides in both parties, involved a plan to raise at least $15 billion in revenue from selling off public spectrum to telecommunication companies for better mobile communication.

On Wednesday, negotiators appeared to agree on a plan that would auction off $22 billion worth of the spectrum to the industry, then siphon $7 billion of that into a fund for federal maintenance of a frequency dedicated to emergency first responders, senior Democratic aides said Wednesday.