WASHINGTON -- On Veterans Day eve, an uncharacteristically unified Senate emphatically passed a bill to help unemployed veterans and government contractors that includes the first small slivers of President Barack Obama's jobs agenda that he is likely to sign into law.
Thursday's 95-0 vote gave lawmakers the opportunity to fly home to holiday events and boast about helping veterans and protecting jobs. But it did little to help close the scorching partisan divide over how to revive the gasping economy, an issue that seems sure to decide next year's presidential and congressional elections.
"We deal with a lot of contentious issues here, but this should not be one of them," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a leading sponsor of the veterans' provisions.
The legislation would award tax credits of up to $9,600 to companies that hire disabled veterans who have been job-hunting for at least half a year. It also would strengthen employment counseling and training programs for vets and troops about to leave the military.
And the bill would erase a law, yet to take effect, requiring federal, state and local government agencies to withhold 3 percent of their payments to companies with which they conduct business.
That law was enacted under President George W. Bush to nudge companies to fully pay their taxes, but lawmakers now say it would fence off money those firms could better use to hire more workers.
Earlier, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint was the lone senator to vote against the amendment that would grant tax credits for hiring veterans.
DeMint, R-S.C., said the credits amounted to pandering to a special interest and that they likely would result in little hiring. He later voted in favor of the larger bill.
The House is expected to approve the bill resoundingly next week, which would send it to Obama.
The president's signature would make the veterans tax credits the first fragment of his $447 billion jobs package to be enacted. Those tax credits would cost $90 million over the next decade, according to White House estimates.
Obama also has supported annulling the withholding requirement on contractors' payments.
The rest of the president's jobs plan, which is highlighted by payroll tax cuts and money for infrastructure projects and hiring teachers and police officers, has foundered.
A senior administration official said the White House will pressure Republicans over the president's proposal to extend this year's cut in the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax cut through 2012, arguing that without a renewal, people's taxes would rise next year.
There are about 240,000 unemployed veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, around 12 percent of those who served there, the White House said. A total of 850,000 veterans overall are out of work.
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.