Defying expectations, extension of jobless benefits clears Senate hurdle

Six Republicans joined Dems in vote to begin debate on emergency unemployment benefits for 1.3 million

People arrive to seek employment opportunities at a JobTrain office in Menlo Park, Calif.
Paul Sakuma/AP Images

In an unexpected outcome, a three-month extension of federal emergency unemployment benefits cleared an initial procedural hurdle in the Senate Tuesday morning, reaching the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold needed to allow full debate of the measure.

Six Republicans — Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Dan Coats, R-Ind., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Dean Heller, R-Nev., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, joined their Democratic colleagues in a 60-37 vote, with many Senators kept away from the Capitol because of the weather.

The federal benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans expired Dec. 28, when Congress left town for the holidays without addressing an extension. The federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program was first authorized in 2008 as the country toppled into a recession and provides a lifeline for the jobless when their state unemployment insurance runs out, typically at 26 weeks.

Democrats have been pushing for an extension for the past month, but Republican leadership opposed extending the benefits for the long-term unemployed without finding offsets in the budget.

Many GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of using the issue of unemployment insurance to score political points ahead of congressional elections this year, instead of actually working to find solutions for the millions of Americans who remain without work in the fifth year of Obama’s presidency.

Funding the program for three months would cost about $6.4 billion.

President Obama praised the bipartisan Senate effort in remarks shortly after the vote, making both a moral and economic case for renewing the benefits for the jobless who depended on the help while looking for work.

“There are a lot of our friends, a lot of our neighbors who've lost their jobs, and they are working their tails off every single day trying to find a new job,” he said. “But in the meantime, the insurance keeps them from falling off a cliff. It makes sure they can pay their car note to go to that interview. It makes sure they can pay their cellphone bill so that if somebody calls back for an interview, they can answer it.”

Obama nonetheless indicated that it would be a tough road ahead to get the bill through a final vote in the Senate and then through the GOP-controlled House.

“Letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong,” he said. “Congress should make things right.”

Speaker John Boehner has indicated the measure is dead on arrival in the House.

“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” Boehner said in a statement after the Senate vote. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”

Political fireworks ignited in the Senate chamber Monday morning when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested that he would be amenable to vote for an extension if Democrats agreed to a one-year delay of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, the centerpiece of the law that requires all Americans to purchase health insurance.

"I am a little surprised at the fervor with which the majority is dedicated to reviving the emergency unemployment benefits after they ignored the issue for all of last year," McConnell said. "I'm sure there's many on my side who would like to see these additional weeks of benefits extended if, like the Speaker of the House indicated that he supported, we could find a way to extend them without actually adding to the national debt."

Reid fired back: "This is a guise to obstruct, as has been happening during the five years President Obama has been President of the United States and I object with as much fervor as I can."

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