WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has said he wants to focus laser-like on the public's top concern: jobs. But the ongoing effort to remake the nation's health care system keeps getting in the way.
The White House held a ceremony Thursday in the sunny Rose Garden where Obama signed into law a $38 billion jobs bill containing a modest mix of tax breaks and spending designed to encourage the private sector to start hiring again.
Even with jobs on his immediate agenda, Obama's opening remarks were about health care.
"Let me say a few words about the latest development in the debate over health insurance reform," Obama told the audience of administration officials, lawmakers and interest groups. "I don't know if you guys have been hearing, but there's been a big debate going on here."
Health care looms so large in the political calculus that Obama on Thursday postponed a long-planned trip to the Pacific so he could remain in Washington for the final health care votes. His scheduled Sunday departure, already pushed back by several days, was delayed until June.
There is also debate about how much the jobs package, which includes $18 billion in tax breaks and $20 billion for highway and transit programs, will actually encourage hiring. Optimistic estimates are that the tax breaks could generate 250,000 jobs by year's end, a tiny portion of the 8.4 million jobs the economy has shed since the recession began in December 2007.
The jobs measure is the first of several that Democrats have promised in an election year to show they are addressing voters' biggest worry. Republicans are united in opposition to Obama's health care overhaul, but 11 Republicans were among the 68 senators who voted Wednesday to send the bill to the president, a show of bipartisanship as lawmakers from both parties cast an eye toward re-election in November.
Under the package, businesses that hire anyone who has been out of work for at least 60 days would be exempt from paying the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax on that employee through December. The government would reimburse the Social Security trust fund for the lost revenue.
Employers would get an additional $1,000 credit for each new worker remaining on the job for a full year.
The package also extends a tax break for small businesses that buy new equipment and expands an initiative that helps state and local government pay for transportation and infrastructure projects.
It is paid for over the coming decade partly by cracking down on offshore tax havens, but it would add $13 billion to the national debt in the coming three years.
Obama said small businesses in particular will benefit.
"Many of them are on the fence right now about whether to bring on that extra worker or two, or whether to hire anyone at all," he said. "This jobs bill should help make their decision that much easier."
Bill Rys, a tax attorney at the National Federation of Independent Business, the biggest advocacy group for small businesses, said the tax breaks are likely to help companies that already had planned to do some hiring and that it would now just be cheaper for them to do so. He said many businesses have few customers and flat sales.
"Until the work picks up, there's not necessarily going to be a need to bring in new workers," Rys said.