The battle over extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed was formally joined on Tuesday, when the Senate narrowly broke a GOP filibuster and moved ahead with legislation to achieve that goal. President Obama declared the measure a “vital economic lifeline” to millions of Americans.
After a dismal year of political brinksmanship and a government shutdown that drove their approval ratings to historic lows, Obama and Congress are back again in search of redemptive themes and measures heading into an important off-year election campaign.
While there is a sense of urgency in dealing with an unemployment insurance controversy that will affect Americans in virtually every congressional district in the country, Congress and the White House are gearing up for an important debate on a raft of concerns over economic fairness and the growing gap between rich and poor in the country. Those include raising the minimum wage, the need for new approaches to reducing poverty on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson “war on poverty” and a number of conservative ideas for encouraging economic growth and development.
On a key 60 to 37 vote, six Republicans joined with 54 Democrats and independents to clear the way for a final vote later this week on a measure sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) to extend the long-term unemployment program by an additional three months at a cost of $6.5 billion.
About 1.3 million people who have been out of work for six months or longer lost the last of their unemployment insurance when a divided Congress allowed the emergency program to expire on Dec. 28. Several million more will lose those benefits later this year unless lawmakers and the White House strike a deal.
Meanwhile, Obama used a White House event on unemployment insurance to challenge Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and other congressional Republicans who contend that efforts to extend unemployment insurance benefits beyond the standard 26 weeks was a “disincentive” for the unemployed to find work.
“Now,I’ve heard the argument that says extending unemployment insurance will somehow hurt the unemployed because it zaps their motivation to get a new job,” he said. “That really sells the American people short….I can’t name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job.”
The outcome of the cloture vote came as a surprise late Monday evening because of lack of support. Even so, prospects for final passage of the bill may turn on the willingness of Democrats to come up with a set of spending cuts to offset the cost of the extended benefits.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said he is open to an extension “as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again.” Boehner has not been specific about what those efforts might be, but according to one report White House authorization to build the Keystone pipeline might be in the mix.
Reid said he spoke to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Tuesday about finding spending cuts or new revenue to pay for the bill and McDonough told Reid he’d “run the traps” on it, according to Politico. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has also begun discussing proposals for paying for the additional unemployment insurance coverage with Democrats
Of the six Republicans who voted to end cloture — Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Dan Coats (IN), Collins, Heller, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (OH) — most said they were unlikely to support the legislation as it is currently drafted, according to the Washington Post.
Collins told reporters Monday evening that she spoke to Obama and told him that she believes after one year of being unemployed, beneficiaries should be required to demonstrate that they are participating in a job training program.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) charged that the Democrats were attempting to shift the political focus away from Obama’s troubled health care law. “I have to admit I’m a little surprised at the fervor with which the majority is dedicated to reviving the expired emergency unemployment benefits after they ignored the issue all of last year,” he said.
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