WASHINGTON — The Senate faced a critical "moment of truth," President Barack Obama declared Tuesday as lawmakers neared a vote on his $447 billion jobs bill. Despite his exhortations, defeat was likely at the hands of Republican senators opposed to stimulus spending and a tax surcharge on millionaires.
"This is gut check time," Obama told a union crowd in Pittsburgh not long before Congress' first vote on the plan. "Right now, our economy needs a jolt. Right now. And today, the Senate of the United States has a chance to do something, right now, by voting for the American Jobs Act."
At the same time, acknowledging reality, Obama said that if Congress didn't pass the entire package he was prepared to break it into pieces and try to pass job-creation legislation that way.
The plan combines Social Security payroll tax cuts for workers and businesses with $175 billion in spending on roads, school repairs and other infrastructure, as well as unemployment assistance and help to local governments to avoid layoffs of teachers, firefighters and police.
Republicans say the proposal is just another failed economic stimulus attempt.
"It's not a jobs bill. In our view, it's another stimulus bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Fox News last week. "I don't think it'll pass and I don't think it should." GOP leaders in the House say they won't bring the measure to the floor on that side of the Capitol.
Despite Republican opposition to new spending, Obama singled out public works projects in the plan as efforts that should move quickly.
"Having relevant businesses get behind an effort to move this infrastructure agenda forward is a priority," Obama told his jobs council of corporate and labor leaders Tuesday before his union speech.
"We're going to need a push, I think, from the business community in particular in order to get this across the finish line," he said.
The White House remains hopeful that infrastructure spending is an area it can get Republican votes.
After meeting with his jobs council and giving the speech in Pittsburgh, Obama was to appear late Tuesday in Orlando, Fla., with a group of unemployed construction workers who the White House said would benefit from passage of the jobs plan. Both states also are crucial to the presidential race next year.
The key elements of the jobs package reprise parts of Obama's $800 billion-plus 2009 stimulus measure and a Social Security payroll tax cut enacted last year. Unlike the deficit-financed stimulus bill, the jobs measure would be paid for by a 5.6 percent surcharge on income exceeding $1 million that would be expected to raise more than $450 billion over a decade.
In making the case for the bill, the White House cites economists such as Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, who predicts that the measure would add 2 percentage points of growth to the economy and add 1.9 million jobs. But Republicans point to optimistic predictions about the 2009 measure that didn't come to pass; unemployment hovers just above 9 percent nationwide.
The president has been struggling in opinion polls, and passage of the measure has always been a long shot given that Republicans control the House and can filibuster in the Senate.
Obama's comments Tuesday were his most direct acknowledgement that the White House would have to regroup and look for a different approach if Congress rejects the proposal.
Obama also said that he was instructing his staff to move forward on job-creating initiatives without congressional approval where possible. The White House announced steps to speed environmental and other regulatory approvals for 14 public works projects across the country.
"We're not going to wait for Congress," Obama said.
While Republicans backed the payroll tax cut for individuals last year and support elements such as continued tax breaks for investments in business equipment, they're adamantly opposed to further spending and say the tax surcharge would strike at small businesses, which, in total, employ more than 300,000 people.
Democratic unanimity was not assured. Moderates including Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — both up for re-election next year in states where Obama figures to lose — may abandon the party, even as oil-state Democrats have been assuaged by a decision to get rid of an Obama proposal to have oil companies give up tax breaks.
The top Democratic vote counter, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said in an interview Monday on the Chicago TV station WTTW that the party could lose up to four Democrats on the vote. That would leave the measure short of a simple majority, much less the 60 votes needed to cut off a GOP filibuster on a motion to simply begin debate.
If Democrats fail as expected — they control 53 votes in the 100-member Senate — a fresh wave of partisan finger-pointing is likely.
Both the House and Senate would then be expected to turn this week to approving U.S. trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, one of the few areas of agreement between Republicans and the administration on boosting the economy.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Pittsburgh and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.