Minutes after swearing in new Senator Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, Senate Democrats moved swiftly to send an extension of long-term unemployment insurance -- which has quickly become a red-hot political issue -- to an up-or-down vote. Some 2.5 million people have seen their benefits expire since June 2.
Having overcome the threat of a Republican filibuster by a 60-40 vote margin, Democrats are now virtually certain to pass the bill. It would be a key victory for President Obama.
Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were the only Republicans to vote for the bill. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to oppose it.
The unemployment benefits extension has become a political football in a mid-term election year, with both parties using the issue to rally their respective bases. Obama and Democrats say the unemployed need relief on humanitarian grounds. Republicans say they agree with the $34 billion extension in principle but insist the measure be paid for by unused stimulus funds. Democrats say that would undercut the stimulative effect of deficit spending.
Differing Economic Views
Emergency humanitarian rationale aside, the parties are split ideologically over the economic impact of the extension. Democrats say cash-strapped recipients will quickly spend the money on household essentials like food and rent, spurring the economy. Republicans, meanwhile, oppose a bill that will add to the national deficit.
Several Republicans have suggested that extending the benefits would give workers less cause to seek jobs. "Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said earlier this spring. Democrats counter that with five applicants for every job opening, the "disincentive" argument is largely moot.
Over the weekend, President Obama used GOP opposition to paint Republicans as heartless politicians who don't care about the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the recession. He reiterated that message during a Rose Garden address on Monday.
The $34 billion unemployment benefits extension would add about 2% to the projected budget deficit of $1.56 trillion. In the last year of the Clinton administration, the federal budget had a surplus of $236 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. President George W. Bush handed Obama a $1.2 trillion budget deficit for the fiscal year 2009, which was set before Obama took office.
Democrats Pass Key Hurdle on Unemployment Benefits