Senate passes unemployment insurance extension

The Senate on Wednesday easily approved a minimum 14-week extension of unemployment insurance for millions of Americans who have exhausted their benefits.

The 98-0 vote concludes a four-week standoff between the majority party and GOP leaders over the size and scope of the extension, a slightly different version of which passed the House more than a month ago.

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The Senate's effort now heads to the House. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the lower chamber could vote on the bill by Thursday’s end.

“Many of our nation’s unemployed workers have been anxiously waiting for these benefits to come through, and I’m happy to report that relief is on the way," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) at a press conference after the vote.

"Our work to stabilize the economy and create jobs does not stop here, but we took an important step today to do the right thing for American workers and their families," she added.

The bill provides 14 weeks of unemployment insurance to Americans in every state, with an extra 6 weeks of jobless benefits for those workers in states with average, three-month unemployment rates above 8.5 percent.

That differs a bit from the proposal House lawmakers approved in September, which only offered additional weeks of unemployment benefits to states that broke the 8.5 percent jobless threshold.

Democrats in the Senate rallied against that proposal at the beginning of October, complaining that it disadvantaged jobless workers in states that were weathering the recession.

The unemployment insurance bill has so far survived a bumpy trajectory, especially in the Senate.

The bill stalled for weeks on the Senate floor because of a partisan debate over process.

The chamber's Republicans have said they generally support extending unemployment benefits, but they initially opposed the Democrats' proposal because the majority party refused to consider a series of GOP amendments.

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The party initially proposed nine revisions, including one that targeted immigration verification rules and another that would have revised a portion of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Also among the GOP's amendments was one that would have required Congress to pay for its unemployment insurance extension using unspent TARP money, rather than through an extension of an unemployment tax levied on employers, the Democrats' proposed funding mechanism.

Democratic leaders blocked most GOP amendments, seeking to limit them to only three. Democrats argued that the Senate has already voted on similar measures as part of other legislation.

"They are only trying to delay and stall things," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Tuesday, before Democrats called for cloture. "We have done more legislating on voting on non-germane, non-relevant amendments this Congress I think than any time in the history that I've been around. And we've done it because the Republicans said that's what they wanted, and I wanted to be fair."

In the end, none of the GOP amendments received floor votes.

Democrats did, however, add to their bill two provisions that had GOP support: an extension of a first-time homebuyers' tax credit and an expansion of the net operating loss carryover tax break, which allows struggling businesses refunds on past taxes.

"This bill, in the end, is a jobs bill," Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said before the vote, noting the bill would help the economy "come back."