Extension of jobless aid clears hurdle; Obama signature expected this week
WASHINGTON — The Senate cleared the way Tuesday for final passage of a bill to extend long-stalled jobless benefits to an estimated 2.5 million people, as it voted 60-40 to halt the often bitter partisan stalemate that has stymied the popular program.
The vote limited Senate debate and virtually assured that Congress will approve the measure, probably today. The House was expected to give quick final approval, followed by the signature of President Barack Obama this week.
Obama’s signature will allow millions of people to receive benefits that were cut off in early June, when Congress did not extend the program. The measure will allow benefits to
continue through Nov. 30.
Minutes after Carte Goodwin was sworn in as the new Democratic senator from West Virginia to replace the late Robert Byrd, the Senate voted 60-40 to break a partisan logjam and end debate over the jobless pay, overriding Republican objections that the $34 billion costs of the additional compensation shouldn’t be added to the deficit.
“One vote made a difference today for millions of Americans who have been out of work waiting for their unemployment benefits,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said about Goodwin’s arrival to cast his decisive vote.
Even after the vote, Democrats accused Republicans of needlessly stalling the bill by using procedural powers to delay the vote by a day rather than allow final consideration Tuesday. Only two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, joined 56 Democrats and two independents in mustering the minimum number required to advance the plan. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to vote with 39 Republicans against the bill.
Republicans said they supported providing more jobless pay for struggling Americans but argued that the costs should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere to avoid adding to rising federal deficits. They proposed that money not yet spent from last year’s economic stimulus plan be used to cover the costs.
“When given the option to pay for these benefits with unused stimulus funds, the president and congressional Democrats chose adding to the country’s red ink over fiscal responsibility,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Democrats argued that diverting stimulus money would weaken federal efforts to create jobs for the people they were helping with the unemployment pay.
They said unemployment pay often had been treated as an emergency need free of any deficit considerations.
Democrats blasted away on the Senate floor Tuesday as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, read parts of letters from four constituents who were facing hard times.
He quoted “Richard from Summit County,” who wrote, “I just hate what this country’s become, where senators can’t relate to us common folks. Is there any hope for us?”
“The answer to Richard is ‘yes,’ ” Brown said.
About 2 million Americans have seen their benefits run out since the legislation stalled at the end of May. The difficulty that Democrats had in moving ahead with what has traditionally been a popular vote has forced the leadership to scale back expectations for what it can yet accomplish this year given the requirement to produce at least 60 votes in the Senate on every bill.
Before breaking for their August recess, congressional leaders now hope to wrap up the unemployment aid, another bill to provide loans and incentives to help small businesses and an overdue measure to provide money for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But many lawmakers say they believe the main legislative action of the first half of Obama’s term is approaching an end. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also hopes to debate an energy measure, he acknowledged Tuesday that his plans for the bill were in flux even as others said there was not enough time to take a serious run at a comprehensive energy proposal.
“We’re going to make a decision in the near future,” Reid said. “We’re not really at a point where I can determine what I think is best for the caucus and the country at this stage.”
To most Democrats, the unemployment pay was a priority, given the persistently bad employment outlook back home. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, accused Republicans of a “shameful effort” to hold up the unemployment aid, bristling at suggestions by some Republicans and conservative allies that the stream of jobless money was keeping people from seeking jobs.
“There’s one job for five to eight people out there, and to say somehow by giving them $15,000 a year, $300 a week, this is going to keep them from going to work,” Harkin said. “Preposterous. Absolutely preposterous.”
Republicans said their position was being mischaracterized by Democrats, who they said were forced to extend unemployment pay because their efforts at job creation had failed.
“The people in this country are not looking for those government-driven solutions,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Most of them are looking for government to get out of the way, to back off so that they have that ability to create those jobs.”
Goodwin, who at 36 became the newest and youngest member of the Senate, made a notable entry, taking the oath of office from Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday afternoon and then quickly providing the clinching vote for the stalled unemployment pay.
Goodwin, who is to serve until a special election in November, said he felt privileged that his first vote was one “that helps millions of Americans and over 12,000 West Virginians who are still looking for work.”
By extending the unemployment aid, Congress will remove one potential drag on the economy, analysts say.
“It reduces the likelihood of a double-dip recession,” said Gus Faucher, an economist at Moody’s Analytics.
Jobless aid is widely seen as providing more “bang for the buck” than many other stimulus programs.
“It recycles very quickly into the economy,” said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s. “If that’s your only source of money, you’re going to spend it.”
Moody’s Analytics estimates that every dollar of unemployment aid generates $1.61 in economic activity.
Still, that translates into a boost of only $54 billion — less than one-half of 1 percent of the overall economy.
“It’s not going to make or break” the recovery, Faucher said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., led Democrats, plus two Republicans and two independents, in voting for the added benefits.
Sen. Carte Goodwin, D-W.Va., was sworn in Tuesday to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd. His vote was the one needed to break a partisan logjam and end debate over extending unemployment benefits.