Before Congress adjourns for the holidays, it is expected to pass an extension of payroll tax cuts enacted in 2009 and extend unemployment benefits.

“Expected” may be an overstatement. In this political climate, almost anything could happen, which also is to say that nothing could happen.

However, because 160 million Americans would see 2 percent less in their paychecks next year if the payroll tax goes back up to 6.2 percent, and because next year is an election year, a one-year extension is highly probable.

The outlook for extending unemployment benefits — for the ninth time, at a cost of $45 billion — for those out of work between 26 weeks (which is when state-paid benefits end) and 99 weeks (the maximum for federal benefits in the most economically devastated states) is less certain. The arguments in favor are humanitarian and economic, neither of which may appease House Republicans.

* The average unemployment benefit nationwide, $295 a week, is all that stands between 6 million Americans and poverty. Already 52 percent of America’s 14 million jobless either have exhausted their benefits or are not eligible. If Congress fails to act, about 2.2 million more of the jobless will lose benefits starting in February.

* The unemployment rate still is high at 8.6 percent, but it only recently has begun to fall. Pulling unemployment benefits out of the economy could stall whatever recovery is taking place.

Democrats in Congress have been trying for two months to get both measures passed; they are the last remnants of President Barack Obama’s “pass this bill now” stimulus agenda delivered in a speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9.

Politically, Obama and his party probably would gain if Republicans continue to block the measures, particularly the payroll tax-cut extension. That may be why both of the leading GOP presidential contenders, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, favor the extension.

But everything in Washington today is a zero-sum equation: If you spend more, you have to pay for it somehow. Obama would do that by imposing a surcharge of 1.9 percent on taxable income of more than $1 million a year.

To which Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s minority whip, said, “The surtax is, in reality, a new tax that primarily hits small-business owners.”

If by “primarily” Kyl means the small-business owners who made up fewer than 1 percent of the 236,000 Americans who paid taxes on $1 million or more in 2009, he’s absolutely correct. This may be another of Kyl’s claims that “was not intended to be a factual statement.”

On Tuesday, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, unveiled their own bipartisan approach to paying for the tax-cut extension and $25 billion in infrastructure construction.

They’d apply a 2 percent millionaires tax, but they’d exempt the relative handful of small-business people in that class. They’d also eliminate some unspecified tax breaks for oil companies. As a sop to Republicans, they are proposing delaying for 15 months a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting toxic smokestack emissions.

We’re not sure why poisoned air has to be part of the bargain, but it’s heartening to see some bipartisan cooperation. Only 98 senators and 435 House members to go, and the country can get moving again.

Editorial by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch distributed by MCT Information Services

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