Four GOP sens help Democrats move unemployment benefits

In the 60-34 vote, GOP Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio all voted in favor of the motion to proceed, which sets up another vote in a day or two. 

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hailed the vote and said that based on his talks with leading Republicans, "I think we have a way forward" to have the bill before the Senate starting at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday. A final vote could happen Tuesday, but is more likely toward the end of the week.

Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Robert Menendez of New Jersey were absent, putting Democrats in a difficult spot to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold.

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One of the first senators to cast a vote, Brown crossed the aisle this winter to support a Democratic jobs bill. Snowe and Collins are well-known centrists, and Voinovich is retiring. Snowe said she voted for the procedural motion after visiting with unemployed families across Maine over the recent two-week congressional recess.

"There are people who are in desperate need and depend on these unemployment benefits," Snowe said. "I visited a number of career centers in Maine and I talked firsthand with people who had been long-term unemployed or recently unemployed, and you know, they need their benefits and they don't need this added anxiety about whether they're going to get them. We need to streamline programs, and if there's ways to pay for it that would be great. But let's not add to their burdens."

Under Senate rules, 30 hours of debate would have been required after Monday's vote, but Republicans agreed to waive that requirement shortly before the Senate adjourned for the day.

The $9.2 billion bill would extend long-term unemployment benefits along with COBRA healthcare subsidies and an annual boost in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. The unemployment benefits would last until May 5; the other changes would end April 30.

The benefits expired during the recent two-week congressional recess, after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked the bill in March because it wasn’t paid for. Democrats said the benefits are emergency spending that does not need to be funded like other expenses, but Republicans say that approach is irresponsible.

The GOP is positioning itself to avoid a repeat of its public-relations defeat a month ago, when Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) took a similar stance against extending unemployment benefits. In the face of growing media coverage, Republicans splintered and Bunning backed down.

This time around, Republicans appear more united. Coburn, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) led the charge on Monday, saying the spending is symptomatic of Democrats’ inability to recognize the long-term effects of their budgeting practices.

“When are we going to start recognizing the need to live within our means?” Coburn said in a floor speech Monday. “We’re going to hear that we’ve always done it this way, that we’ve passed three other short-term extensions, and that we called them emergencies so we would not have to pay for them. I would say it is time we not do it the way we’ve always done it, because the way we’ve always done it has gotten us $12.6 trillion in debt.”

Democrats ramped up their promotional efforts preceding Monday’s vote, targeting Republicans as obstructionists. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), whose state’s 14.6 percent unemployment rate exceeds the 10 percent national average, took aim at the GOP’s argument over the definition of emergency spending.

"It is as much an emergency as anything else in our country," Stabenow said of the unemployment benefits.

— This story was updated at 6:50 p.m.