WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday took a major, and likely decisive, step toward restoring jobless benefits for hundreds of thousands of people, as those constituents endured an eighth straight day without assurances of any help.
Efforts to provide the benefits have been stalled while senators fought over how and whether to pay for the aid. A 60-34 Senate vote Monday to overcome a procedural hurdle and move to a final vote offered new hope that the impasse will be broken later this week.
In the meantime, the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that studies employment issues, estimates that about 212,500 people lose benefits each week as Congress stalls on approving money for the aid. By the end of April, the total could be nearly 1 million. The jobless aid money ran out April 5.
"The American people are saying, 'Why can't those guys get together up there and get something done?' " Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked during Monday's debate. " 'Whatever happened to common sense?' they say. 'Why can't you extend their unemployment benefits?' "
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who's led the fight to stall the extension unless it's paid for, countered, "We're not just fighting about unemployment benefits … we're debating the issue of whether or not we take from those who come after us and give to those today."
The unemployment benefits are the major part of a $9.2 billion package that would pay for a wide range of government programs this month, notably payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, the National Flood Insurance Program and health insurance help for jobless people. Backers want the measure to be considered an emergency, meaning that no offsetting spending cuts or revenues would be necessary.
Usually, the approval of such matters is routine, but fiscal conservatives recently have dug in. The latest impasse is the second in recent weeks over extending the jobless and other programs.
In March, it was Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who held up an extension for that month, protesting that it wasn't paid for, but he relented under pressure from Republican leaders. This time, Republicans rallied around Coburn.
"Democrats can no longer hide behind the argument of good intentions when the results threaten our very stability as a nation. We must get a handle on the deficit and debt," argued Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., charged that such logic was downright cruel.
"These are not bums," he said of the jobless. "These are people out of work for a long time. If we extend this unemployment benefit we can give the unemployed families the help they need to put food on the table or go to the doctor."
The issue has dragged on longer this month, partly because Congress went ahead March 26 with an Easter/Passover recess that ended Monday.
While benefits are expected to be restored, and paid retroactively, the deadlock creates two problems.
First, analysts said, constituents suffer, and lawmakers appear insensitive to their needs. Fifteen million people were unemployed last month, and 44.1 percent have been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
"While not that many people may be following this, for those who are, it creates a very negative impression," said William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama.
In Georgia, for example, 5,000 people have been without benefits coverage, and state officials estimate that for every week the Senate stalemate continues 5,000 residents will lose coverage.
"This gamesmanship and brinksmanship on two separate occasions is untenable at this point," said Michael Thurmond, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor.
The second problem, analysts said, is that the deadlock fuels public cynicism about Congress and Washington.
In late March, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked people to describe their views toward Congress in one word. Eighty-six percent offered negative words: "dysfunctional," "corrupt" and "self-serving" topped the list.
The spending bill's problems, analysts said, may create new ammunition for those who see Washington as a political quagmire.
In March, the federal Department of Transportation furloughed about 2,000 employees because of the funding lapse. Federal inspectors were removed briefly from major projects around the country, including a $15 million bridge construction/stream rehabilitation project in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and the $8 million resurfacing of the Natchez Trace Bridge in Mississippi.
Field offices across the country were affected. In Georgia, 79 employees were furloughed. In Washington state, 196 people were affected.
"It was wrong to furlough these employees March 1, and it is wrong today to dock their pay for actions beyond their control," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
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