Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown may have crushed Democrats' spirits in winning a special election last month, but he's also helped revive them by providing critical momentum to advance a bipartisan jobs bill that had become entangled in familiar partisan wrangling.
Brown's win means that Democrats don't possess a filibuster-proof Senate majority. The new formula for victory resembles the old one: Gain the votes of New England Republican moderates, as well as old-timers who occasionally buck their leadership.
That's just what happened Monday, when Brown, along with Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, voted to defeat a filibuster led by far more conservative GOP leaders.
Also siding with Democrats in the 62-30 tally were Rust Belt Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both are big fans of infrastructure spending that also is provided in the bill, and both also are retiring from the Senate this year, giving them some wiggle room to challenge their party's leaders and conservative base.
For Brown, joining a GOP filibuster over a parliamentary procedural squabble clearly wasn't the best vote for a new senator from an overwhelmingly Democratic state who had campaigned on a promise to rise above partisan politics.
"I came to Washington to be an independent voice, to put politics aside and to do everything in my power to help create jobs for Massachusetts families," said Brown, whose election last month gave Republicans the 41st vote that could sustain filibusters. "This Senate jobs bill is not perfect ... but I voted for it because it contains measures that will help put people back to work."
Monday's vote cleared the decks for a far larger favorable vote when the jobs legislation faces an up-or-down final tally Wednesday.
The bill features four provisions, including a $13 billion measure exempting businesses hiring the unemployed from the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax through December and giving them another $1,000 credit if new workers stay on the job a full year.
It's undeniably modest, especially in comparison with the $862 billion economic stimulus bill enacted a year ago. It's also significantly smaller than a rival bipartisan bill unveiled earlier this month by two senior senators.
The measure is centered on tax breaks for businesses that hire new workers this year and a renewal of highway programs through Dec. 31. Both ideas have wide support in both parties. Mark Zandi, an economist with Moody's Economy.com, estimates the tax credit could spur about 250,000 new jobs.
GOP leaders mounted a filibuster because of strong-arm tactics by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in bringing it to the floor.
Republicans and some Democrats were unhappy that Reid abruptly dumped about $70 billion in other tax breaks for businesses and individuals, help for the unemployed and additional Medicare payments to doctors from a compromise measure unveiled earlier this month by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, on the Finance Committee.
Reid then refused to allow Republicans to try to add them back, inviting a filibuster.
In addition to the hiring tax incentives and highway funding, the bill would extend a tax break for small businesses buying new equipment and modestly expand an initiative that helps state and local governments finance infrastructure projects.
The larger Finance Committee bill included about $33 billion in popular tax breaks, including an income tax deduction for sales and property taxes and a business tax credit for research and development, that would be extended through 2010. Those ideas have sweeping support among lawmakers, have been routinely renewed and probably will come up for votes again soon.
Business groups say companies are unlikely to hire workers just to receive a tax break. That means most of the tax benefits would go to companies that would have hired new workers anyway.
"Obviously it's not very efficient," Zandi said. "It's something worthwhile doing as an insurance policy but it's not something one would want to do in any other circumstance."