Jobless benefits pass Senate hurdle

 

The Senate on Tuesday moved forward with a bill to extend federal unemployment benefits for three months.

In a 60-37 vote, the Senate ended debate on a motion to consider the bill. Sixty votes were required to move forward.

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GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Dan Coats (Ind.) joined Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in voting with Democrats. One Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), missed the vote.

Many Republicans objected to moving forward with the bill because the $6.4 billion cost of the three-month extension is not offset with spending cuts, and it's unclear whether the measure will even be taken up in the House — assuming the Senate approves it.

Two of the GOP senators who voted to move the measure forward on Tuesday implored Democrats to work with them to find an offset, and said it was far from a done deal that they would back the measure again.

Coats suggested that his "yes" vote was smart politics, by forcing Democrats to come to the table to discuss potential "pay-fors" for a measure that currently has no offsets.

If Democrats refuse and the bill goes down, Coats said, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could potentially absorb some of the blame – after Democrats had spent days slamming Republicans for turning a cold shoulder to more than one million unemployed people.

“Take it outside the politics of it – the gotcha politics – and get back to a Senate that debates policies and those changes,” Coats told reporters after the debate.

“Why end the process from even starting?" he asked. "If Harry wants to not give us an opportunity to offer amendments, to debate reforms, to accept a pay-for, then Democrats will have to answer the question.”

Portman said that he voted to proceed “so we can engage in the debate on how to pay for this and how to make the unemployment insurance work better for Ohioans who are trying to find a job.”

Portman said he would have his own ideas for how to pay for the extension, but declined to reveal any details. “Now we have a chance to have a debate,” he said.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement released shortly after the vote said he had personally told the White House that another extension must be paid for, and should "include something to put people back to work." 

Boehner's statement also noted that the federal benefits are intended for only the worst economic conditions, and that they have been in place longer and been extended more times than any previous program.  

The White House and Democrats have used the push for federal unemployment benefits as part of an effort highlighting income inequality. The party hopes the issue can attract voters ahead of a midterm election in which Democrats are worried about losing the Senate.

Reid argued on the Senate floor that Republican opposition was another signal that the GOP was willing to "callously turn their backs on the long-term unemployed."

“Failing to extend unemployment insurance won’t just be a hardship for out-of-work Americans,” Reid said. “It will also be a drag on our economy. Allowing this important lifeline to lapse will cost 240,000 jobs.”

Later on Tuesday, Obama will hold an event at the White House with unemployed workers. About 1.3 million people lost the federal aid when the program expired late last year. 

Senate Republicans had come under pressure from the Club for Growth, which said it would negatively score votes in favor of the procedural motion. The Club opposed extending the benefits without paying for them.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the vote that his party could accept extending the federal benefits, which go to unemployed people who have exhausted state benefits — but only if they were paid for.

“Many on my side would like to see them extended without actually adding to the national debt," McConnell said on the Senate floor.

McConnell also offered an amendment to the bill on Tuesday that would delay the ObamaCare mandate that individuals purchase insurance. McConnell’s amendment would also restore a cut in military pensions that was included in a two-year budget deal the Congress approved in December.

Tuesday’s vote was to have been held on Monday evening, but cold weather delayed several senators’ flights to Washington.

The bill on the Senate floor is sponsored by Hellner and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). The two have argued that extending the federal benefits for three months will buy time for a longer-term deal.

“It’s the right thing to do for these workers and it’s the smart thing to do for our economy,” Reed said Monday. “This is one of the best fiscal tools we have available to ensure that we are creating demand and additional jobs.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he wouldn’t support the bill because it would increase the federal debt and he believes the bill wouldn’t address the true issue of unemployment.

“This is a lot of money,” Sessions said. “An unemployment extension bill is treating the symptoms of the problem. … We need to deal with the cause of it rather than treating the symptoms.”

The federal benefits were first signed into law by President George W. Bush after the 2008 financial collapse to provide support to people who could no longer receive state unemployment benefits, which typically expire after six months.

Bernie Becker contributed to this story, which was updated at 12:47 p.m.