House members returned to Washington in a rare August callback to clear a $26 billion jobs bill with unmistakeable implications for November congressional elections.
House Democratic leaders, intent on showing disenchanted voters their commitment to economic recovery, insisted on the one-day session to pass legislation they said would save the jobs of more than 300,000 teachers and other public service workers. Republicans shot back that Democrats would spend more money the government doesn't have while bowing to the wishes of teachers' unions.
President Barack Obama urged the House to send him the bill for his signature. Flanked by two teachers facing potential job loss in a White House Rose Garden event, Obama said that failing to pass the bill would set the country back at a time when it needs to be moving forward.
Lawmakers rushing back from town hall meetings and vacations also addressed another issue that will be on voters' minds in November, passing by voice vote a $600 million bill to shore up surveillance and security along the troubled U.S.-Mexican border.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi convened the recess session because the Senate passed both the $26 billion jobs bill and the border security bill last Thursday, after the House had already departed for its six-week summer break.
The legislation provides $10 billion to school districts to rehire laid-off teachers or ensure that more teachers won't be let go before the new school year begins. The money could keep more than 160,000 teachers on the job, according to Education Department estimates.
The other half of the bill has $16 billion for six more months of increased payments to the states for the Medicaid program for the indigent. That would free up money for states to meet other budget priorities, including keeping more than 150,000 police officers and other public workers on the payroll. Some three-fifths of states have already factored in the federal money in drawing up their budgets for the current fiscal year.
The National Governors Association, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the states' estimated budget shortfall for the 2010-12 period is $116 billion, and the extended Medicaid payments are "the best way to help states bridge the gap between their worst fiscal year and the beginning of recovery."
But House Republican leader John Boehner contended, "The American people don't want more Washington 'stimulus' spending — especially in the form of a payoff to union bosses and liberal special interests."
Pelosi responded, "Why wouldn't House Republicans want to keep 310,000 teachers, first responders and private-sector workers on the job instead of on the unemployment lines?"
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said she found the Republican argument "insulting and outrageous ... averting layoffs is about ensuring that kids have their teachers and good people have their jobs."
Democrats stress that the bill is paid for and won't add to the deficit, but that too is a source of contention.