Senate likely to break deadlock on jobless benefits

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Senate is expected Tuesday to break its deadlock over extending jobless benefits to millions of people when it votes on whether to end a lengthy standoff over how to pay for the program.

The vote will come a day after President Barack Obama escalated his attacks on Republicans, blasting them for opposing an extension of unemployment benefits while pushing tax cuts for the wealthy. Republicans fired back, saying that Obama omitted an important point.

"It is appropriate for Congress to extend unemployment benefits. It's even more important for Congress to pay for them," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana.

Money for extended benefits ran out in early June, and the Senate has been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and pass its plan to provide $33.9 billion to extend benefits through Nov. 30. The cost would add to the federal budget deficit; it’s not offset by spending cuts or higher taxes.

The most recent effort to end debate got only 59 votes on June 30, but at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Democrat Carte Goodwin of West Virginia is to be sworn into the Senate. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin appointed him Friday to succeed Sen. Robert Byrd, who died June 28. Fifteen minutes later, the Senate plans to take another vote on ending debate.

Senate Democrats then will control 59 seats. Last month, Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted with the Democrats to cut off debate, while Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, did not.

Goodwin would provide the 60th vote. The Senate then can vote on the bill’s final passage Tuesday or Wednesday. If the House of Representatives concurs as expected, an estimated 2.5 million people once again will be able to claim extended benefits.

The process of getting the benefits to claimants will vary, depending on their history and other factors, according to the Department of Labor. Spokeswoman Evangelina Garcia said that once Obama signed the bill, “checks can go out as soon as administratively feasible.

“Practically, it will depend upon how quickly the states can modify their automated benefit system to process the claims.”

Obama made a strong push Monday to get the Senate moving, though he failed to mention that Republicans have offered repeatedly to extend the benefits by providing plans to pay for them without adding to the deficit.

On June 30, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky proposed a two-month extension, paid for with unspent economic stimulus money, a plan that many Senate Democrats had suggested as part of a broader package.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada opposed McConnell’s proposal, saying that such benefit extensions traditionally are considered emergencies and need not have their costs offset.

“We as a Congress — Democrats and Republicans — have always extended unemployment benefits because it is an emergency,” Reid said.

McConnell’s proposal died.

Obama attempted to dramatize the deadlock Monday by appearing with three out-of-work Americans whose benefits have expired or are about to expire, saying they're victims of a Republican minority in the Senate that's blocked an extension of the benefits three times.

"After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really do need help," Obama said.

Obama was joined in the White House Rose Garden by Jim Chukalas, a laid-off auto parts manager from Fredon Township, N.J.; Leslie Macko, an out-of-work aesthetician from Charlottesville, Va.; and Denise Gibson, an unemployed maintenance supervisor from Queens, N.Y.

The president said he wanted the benefits extension enacted without offsets because it had been done that way in the past — with Republican support — and should be done that way now even amid growing concerns about trillion-dollar deficits.

"For a long time, there’s been a tradition, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, to offer relief to the unemployed," Obama said. "That was certainly the case under my predecessor, when Republican senators voted several times to extend emergency unemployment benefits."

Republicans protested that Obama’s drama Monday was unnecessary.

“The president knows that Republicans support extending unemployment insurance, and doing it in a fiscally responsible way, by cutting spending elsewhere in the $3 trillion federal budget,” said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked repeatedly Monday why the administration doesn't support offsets.

“In a time of great economic emergency,” Gibbs said, “as we have seen in the past, it’s necessary that we get the benefits that millions of Americans deserve that are out of work.”

"We ought not be playing politics with the unemployment benefits of those that have lost their jobs and are in an economy where there are five job applicants for every opening,” Gibbs said.

Obama’s been amplifying his attacks on Republicans of late.

In his Saturday radio address, Obama contrasted GOP demands that Congress pay for the jobless benefits with Republican pleas to extend Bush administration tax cuts for single filers who earn more than $200,000 annually and couples who make more than $250,000. That would add $391 billion to the deficit over 10 years. ON THE WEB

CBO Director Elmendorf on jobless benefits

Cato Institute study of jobless benefits

Senate roll call vote on jobless benefits debate

Tax Policy Center on jobless benefits

National Employment Law Project

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