Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona./The Press-Enterprise

The region’s politicians in Washington are split along partisan lines about how to extend tax cuts and jobless aid

Published: 13 December 2011 08:28 PM

WASHINGTON — As the debate over extending a soon-to-expire payroll tax cut and benefits for the unemployed nears a crescendo in Congress, few corners of the nation have more at stake than does economically battered Inland Southern California.

The region’s federal delegation is divided on the issue, with Republicans embracing a controversial House extension bill and Democrats coalescing behind a competing plan still being crafted in the Senate. Disagreement revolves around how to pay for the legislation, the duration of benefits for the jobless and whether to include additional provisions related to health care, air quality and oil production.

At the core of both would be an extension of the payroll tax cut, for which there is broad bipartisan support. If Congress does not act by the end of the year, workers would be taxed at a 6.2 percent rate on the first $110,000 they earn in the next year, up from the current 4.2percent rate. That would translate to an average $1,000 to $1,500 tax increase for roughly 160 million people at a time when Riverside and San Bernardino counties have some of the country’s highest poverty rates.

“A lot of our people live paycheck-by-paycheck,” said Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto. “For them not to receive that income would make it very difficult for them … and we’re already No. 1 in poverty in our area.”

The Republican-backed measure passed the House on Tuesday by a tally of 234-193. The region’s four GOP House members — Reps. Ken Calvert, Jerry Lewis, Mary Bono Mack and Darrell Issa — each voted for the bill; Baca voted against.

Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, praised the bill’s passage.

“It helps hard-working Americans by extending the payroll tax cut for another year, without borrowing any money or raising our national debt,” she said. “It also extends and reforms the federal unemployment insurance program.”

The bill approved in the House would cut from 99 to 59 the number of weeks that jobless people are eligible for benefits. It also would require recipients to actively search for work while they are on the public dole. Most Democrats want to continue the 99-week limit. The unemployment rate in the Inland area is above 13 percent, almost five points higher than the national average.

The House legislation also would stave off a scheduled cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients and raise Medicare premiums for seniors making $85,000 or more. The cost of the legislation — an estimated $200 billion over the next decade — is offset by the Medicare savings and other federal spending cuts.

“It’s paid for,” said Calvert, R-Corona.

But opponents of the bill, who include California’s two senators, have a different plan to pay for the extensions. Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration are pushing for a surtax charged to people with incomes over $1 million.

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