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Congress passes modest job-creation bill

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a rare display of cooperation, Republicans and Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly approved a limited jobs bill on Wednesday that would help some veterans find work but otherwise do little to bring down the nation's 9 percent unemployment rate.

The bill, aimed at government contractors and veterans, is so far the only piece of President Barack Obama's $447 billion job-creation package to clear Congress. Republicans have lined up behind a contrasting agenda of their own ahead of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.

It passed the House of Representatives by a unanimous vote of 422 to 0. Only one lawmaker voted against the bill when it passed the Senate last week. Obama has said he will sign it into law.

Republicans have rejected Obama proposals that would boost construction spending and help cash-strapped local governments avoid layoffs of teachers, police and other public employees.

Congress could still act on other elements due to expire at the end of the year, such as enhanced unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut for workers, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says are among the most effective ways to boost the economy in the short term.

Allowing them to expire would slow economic growth next year, according to CBO.

The bill approved Wednesday represents a small slice of Obama's jobs plan.

It aims to reduce unemployment among military veterans by giving a tax break to businesses that hire them. It would also boost veterans' job training programs.

Veterans account for 850,000 of the country's 14 million unemployed workers, according to the White House, and 1 million service members are projected to leave the military in the coming five years as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down.

The bill also eliminates a yet-to-be enacted law that would have withheld 3 percent of payments to government contractors to ensure that they pay their taxes. Business groups say it would interfere with their cash flow, and Congress has prevented it from taking effect since it was passed in 2006.

The bill's $9 billion price tag would be offset by tweaks to mortgage and healthcare programs.

President Obama hailed its passage, saying in a statement: "I want to congratulate Republicans and Democrats in Congress for coming together to pass these tax credits that will encourage businesses to hire America's veterans.

"This is a good first step, but it is only a step. Congress needs to pass the rest of my American Jobs Act so that we can create jobs and put money in the pockets of the middle class."

NOT A BIG IMPACT

Economist Mark Zandi, who has advised policymakers from both parties, said the bill would help veterans find work but would not have a big enough impact to lower the overall jobless rate.

"These provisions are good policy, but not because they will lower unemployment," said Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.

Republicans said the bill's passage was proof that the two parties could find some common ground.

"When we work together, we can find bipartisan solutions to the laws and regulations that stifle job creation," said Representative Dave Camp, who heads the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Democrats said that does not make up for the fact that Republicans have blocked larger pieces of Obama's jobs plan.

"Picking out two of the smaller pieces of that agenda and saying you've acted on the president's jobs bill is really disingenuous," said Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

The Republican jobs plan would boost oil and gas drilling and ease pollution controls and other business regulations. Republicans count 22 bills on their agenda that have stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate after passing the House.

CBO and private-sector analysts say that approach would do little to bring down unemployment in the near term.

(Editing by Deborah Charles and Eric Walsh)

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