Senate passes jobless benefits extension, renews tax cuts

WASHINGTON — After months of wrangling, the Senate on Wednesday approved a $138 billion spending bill to extend jobless benefits, help the states pay for Medicare and extend a bundle of tax measures designed to stimulate the economy.

The measure, which still must be reconciled with a House version, also helps laid-off workers keep job-based health insurance and provides tax breaks for college tuition and research and development.

It also delays a threatened 21 percent cut in doctor payments for treating Medicare patients.

The vote came as Democrats, increasingly anxious about November congressional elections, were continuing to fight unemployment.

"Extending these tax cuts and the critical safety-net programs in this bill will give businesses the tax certainty they need to move forward and families the support they need to make ends meet," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Republicans lambasted the Democrats on spending — and late last month, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a short-term extension of some of the programs, forcing some to lapse. But the measure was approved 62-36 with six Republicans voting yes and one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voting no.

Republicans Christopher Bond, Mo., Susan Collins, Maine, Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, Olympia Snowe, Maine, David Vitter, La., and George Voinovich, Ohio voted for the bill.

Speaking for the opposition, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Senate's No. 3 Republican, said, "Congress can't keep coming up with grand ideas like this $100 billion jobs bill, pretending it can add to our alarming debt without hurting the economy." The bill includes $25 billion in new Medicaid funds to help hard-pressed states pay for health care for the poor.

States received a funding boost in the stimulus bill passed last year. The new bill would extend the funding through mid-2011.

Crop producers who suffered losses because of drought would receive $150 million in disaster assistance, with a substantial part of the aid likely to go to California growers of fruit, vegetables and nuts. The money was added at the behest of the state's Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

A tax break for domestic film and TV production is included.

The bill is only partially paid for, including $24 billion to be raised by closing a loophole in tax credits for biofuel producers. That sum was earmarked for health care and cannot be used for both bills.

The fight was another chapter in the long-running question of how to finance programs that Democrats consider emergency spending.

It remains unclear whether the House will take up the Senate version or turn the two bills over to a conference committee.