A united Senate emphatically approved legislation Thursday intended to help unemployed veterans and companies doing business with the government, endorsing a measure that includes the first small slice of President Barack Obama's jobs plan that is likely to become law.
The 95-0 vote will let senators head home for Friday's Veterans Day events and take credit for helping some of the 240,000 jobless veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The bill would give tax credits of up to $9,600 to companies hiring disabled vets who have been jobless at least six months, and improve job training and counseling for veterans. Obama included the tax breaks in his $447 billion jobs plan, which has otherwise gone nowhere so far in Congress.
"Our veterans are one issue we should never be divided on," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chief author of the veterans' provisions.
The bill also repeals a law requiring federal, state and local governments to withhold 3 percent of their payments to contractors. That statute, which has yet to take effect, was designed to thwart tax cheats, but lawmakers now say it makes it harder for those companies to hire more workers.
The House could pass the legislation next week.
For weeks, the two parties have battled to a standoff over Obama's jobs package, which features a payroll tax break for workers and employers and money for repairing bridges and hiring police officers. Thursday's vote represented a momentary respite in that struggle, waged in the shadow of 2012 presidential and congressional elections that are sure to be dominated by the economy.
Underscoring the ongoing partisan strife over the bleak employment picture, senators rejected a GOP jobs proposal by a mostly party-line 56-40 vote. The plan combined more than two dozen GOP anti-tax, anti-regulatory proposals and contrasted sharply with Obama's approach, which leans more toward federal spending.
"Our vision is, let's unleash the private sector," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "Theirs is they're going to hire a few more people to dig ditches and fill them in."
The GOP jobs proposal would have revamped the tax code by dropping the top individual and corporate income tax rates from 35 percent to 25 percent and require the Senate to vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. It would have repealed Obama's health care overhaul, legislation passed last year to tighten federal oversight of Wall Street, and other labor, energy and environmental regulations.
Despite their divisions over the nation's economic problems, senators were united in their desire to stage a preholiday vote to help veterans and show they are taking steps designed to protect jobs.
A backdrop to Thursday's vote was White House figures showing that about 240,000, or 12 percent, of veterans who have served since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are unemployed.
Beyond increasing to $9,600 the tax credit for hiring disabled veterans, the bill also would create new tax credits of up to $5,600 for employers hiring veterans who have job hunted at least half a year and $2,400 for those out of work for four weeks or more.
In addition, it would expand education and job training benefits for veterans, improve employment counseling they receive while still in the military and provide an extra year of job services for disabled veterans.
Overall, the tax breaks and jobs programs for veterans would cost just over $1 billion, Democratic aides said. It would be paid for by extending a fee the Veterans Affairs Department charges to back home loans.
The law requiring governments to withhold 3 percent of their payments to contractors was enacted five years ago under President George W. Bush in reaction to government investigations finding that thousands of contractors were behind in their taxes by billions of dollars. But with politicians focusing these days on job creation, lawmakers say the requirement would keep companies from using the cash to hire more workers.
Economists say repealing the withholding requirement would have an imperceptible, if any, impact on jobs. Implementation has been delayed until 2013.
Annulling the withholding law would cost the government $11.2 billion over the next decade. The legislation makes up the lost revenue by making it harder for some Social Security beneficiaries to qualify for Medicaid, the federal-state health program for low-income people.