Senate votes to advance bill on jobless benefits as pressure mounts on GOP

The procedural vote moved forward a bill to reinstate extended benefits, which were cut out of December budget deal

Unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans expired in December, just three days after Christmas.

The Senate voted 60-37 Tuesday to advance a bill to reinstate unemployment benefits to more than 1 million Americans who lost the jobless insurance last month. 

The extension to unemployment benefits was a casualty of December budget negotiations, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed to resume debate in the new year, and President Barack Obama has since called on lawmakers to greenlight the "vital economic lifeline." 

Along with calls for raising the minimum wage — which polls show most Americans support — extending unemployment benefits could become a key part of Democratic talking points in advance of the midterm elections set for November.

The payments stopped on Dec. 28 and Democrats, led by Obama, are pushing hard to revive them. The issue is perceived to be vital to many of the party's core voters, who could be crucial in low-turnout, midterm elections.

And Democrats have left little doubt that they will use any Republican opposition to unemployment benefits as a political cudgel.

As pressure mounts, some are seeking a bipartisan compromise.

The bill would extend the benefits for threen months and would provide $6.5 billion to extend unemployment payments to 1.3 million Americans.

Supporters of an extension say the benefits, officially known as Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), can be lifesaving for the long-term unemployed.

"These workers, who are among the 4.1 million Americans still looking for work after six months or more of trying, are stretched to the limit financially. In many cases, EUC benefits are their only source of steady income," according to the National Employment Law Project (PDF).  

The funds have also helped keep hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, NELP reports. 

The Economic Policy Institute, a left leaning think tank, stresses that failing to extend the benefits will cause more job woes. 

"In no other economic downturn has Congress let an extended benefits program expire with so many long-term unemployed," Dan Crawford, an EPI spokesman, told Al Jazeera. "Moreover, letting these benefits expire will cost 310,000 jobs, since the unemployed will have less money to spend in the economy. It simply does not make economic sense to let the program expire." 

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have failed to agree on much in Congress of late. But with the national unemployment average hovering around 7 percent, the parties have moved closer to a bipartisan compromise.

"Some Republicans oppose the bill on philosophical grounds. Democrats are going to have to get five Republicans on board with them," Al Jazeera's Washington correspondent Libby Casey reported from Washington.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky squared off about unemployment benefits Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

Paul argued that the benefits help contribute to joblessness.

"I'm not against having unemployment insurance. I do think, though, that the longer you have it, it provides disincentive to work and there are many studies that indicate this. So we have to figure jobs that keep people from becoming unemployed," Paul said.

Schumer shot back by saying unemployment benefits aren't generous enough to keep people from looking for jobs.

"I think it's a little insulting, a bit insulting to American workers when Rand Paul says that unemployment insurance is a disservice. They want to work. They don't want unemployment benefits. They're just hanging on with unemployment benefits," Schumer said.

Some Republicans oppose the bill on more practical grounds than philosophical ones, arguing there isn't a clear source of funding for the extension. Democrats counter by arguing that the benefits fall under emergency funding category.

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Before the vote Republicans had hinted they might go along with extending benefits if Democrats come up with cuts elsewhere or make other concessions.

"I would like to find a way to get a compromise to extend unemployment insurance, at least for a brief period of time, but at the same time, the Democrats should make compromises," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

Elisabeth Jacobs, a Brookings Institute fellow studying governance, told Al Jazeera austerity measures known as the sequestration have made it difficult to find places to cut. 

"There's not a lot of fat to be trimmed at this point," she said.

She added that the consequences of keeping money out of the pockets of the unemployed will not only have disastrous effects on these individuals and their families but would also serve to harm the economy by limiting personal spending. 

"It's actually more expensive to fail to extend the benefits than to extend them and not 'pay for' the extension," by making cuts elsewhere, Jacobs said, citing studies by the Congressional Budget Office.

Jacobs said a lack of jobs in a lackluster economy is what keeping people out of work, not a lack of will power. 

"Most of the folks who are out of work because there basically aren't enough jobs," Jacobs said.

Schumer said he is unsure Democrats can cobble together 60 votes but said his party remained determined.

"If we don't get the 60, we will come back at this issue," he promised.

Schumer said Democrats would prefer to pass the proposal as is — without having to shift funding from elsewhere, as has been the case for previous extensions. But he told reporters Sunday he wouldn't rule out a way to find new funding for the extension.

Foreshadowing the use of the issue as fodder for midterms, Obama already has scheduled a White House event Tuesday with some whose benefits expired at the end of December.

"Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year's resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now," Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.

Even if the Senate is able to find the votes to send the measure forward, it could become stuck in a back-and-forth between the House and Senate, according to Jacobs. 

She said previous extensions of unemployment benefits had been made at the last minute with a "this is the last time" grumble from some on Capitol Hill. 

"Perhaps this is the time that congress becomes so dysfunctional," that it fails to pass an extension the unemployed and the economy need.

As far as delivering on dysfunctionality, "this Congress has not failed to disppoint yet."

With The Associated Press

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