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.