Republicans Filibuster Unemployment Aid Bill

Blank unemployment claim form on a desktop iStockphoto

For the third time in as many weeks, Senate Republicans on Wednesday successfully filibustered a bill to continue providing unemployment checks to millions of people.

But this time, since the slimmed-down measure attracted two Republican votes, its passage seems assured next month once a replacement is in place for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who died on Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a supporter of the bill, had to vote "nay" to take a procedural step that would allow for a revote. Even though the tally stood at 58-38, Democrats were in reality just one vote short of the 60 needed to beat the filibuster. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the sole Democrat against the bill.

Immediately after the jobless aid vote, the Senate cleared for President Barack Obama's signature a measure to give homebuyers an extra three months to finish qualifying for federal tax incentives that boosted home sales last spring.

The jobless aid measure is one of the last remnants of the Democrats' jobs agenda, which has largely fallen prey to GOP concerns about the deficit. Although a hiring tax break passed in February, ambitious plans for new road construction, incentives for so-called green jobs, and, more recently, funding for cash-starved state governments and local school districts are languishing in the face of Republican resistance.

Save for GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Republicans uniformly opposed the $33 billion jobless aid measure because its cost would be added to the nation's $13 trillion national debt.

"The only reason the unemployment extension hasn't passed is because Democrats simply refuse to pass a bill that doesn't add to the debt," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The House is slated to vote on a companion jobless aid measure on Thursday, though the Senate's action renders it a futile gesture as Congress gets ready to depart Washington for its cherished 4th of July recess.

Without an extension, 1.7 million of the 7 million people who have been without a job for at least six months will have lost their unemployment benefits by the end of this week, according to the Labor Department.

"We have a basic responsibility to help our constituents respond to emergencies," said Reid. "We have a fundamental obligation not to deny them the help they need when they need it the most."

Obama has urged lawmakers to spend about $50 billion to help states pay for Medicaid programs and to avoid teacher layoffs, but Democrats in Congress have been unable to come up with the votes.

Governors made another plea Wednesday for money to help them avoid layoffs of state employees

"This is crucial for America and crucial to the citizens of our states," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said at a Washington, D.C., news conference with governors from New York, Maryland, Washington, Kansas and Michigan.

Rendell said Pennsylvania stands to lose $850 million in Medicaid money. Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson said his state might have to lay off 3,600 teachers.

Many Democrats see state aid and unemployment benefits as insurance against the economy sliding back into recession. And most economists say extending benefits for the unemployed is a good way to stimulate the economy since the money is immediately recycled into the economy.

"It means they've got money in their pocket for the local grocery store, for the local gas station and the local hardware store," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. "It means more money in local economies and more job creation."

However, many Republicans and some Democrats worry about adding to the growing national debt.

"No one's disputing the value of these very important programs," said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. "But we also have to have tough choices and we also need to live within our means."

Brown and other Republicans want to pay for the unemployment benefits with unspent money from last year's massive economic recovery package.

The Democrats' unemployment bill would provide up to 99 weekly unemployment checks averaging about $300 to people whose 26 weeks of state-paid benefits have run out. The benefits would be available through the end of November, at a cost of $33 billion. There are no offsets in the bill, so the cost would add to the deficit.

It's a tough vote for some lawmakers who want to help constituents hit hard by the recession but are wary of being labeled big spenders.

Senate Democrats initially combined the unemployment benefits with the extension of the homebuyer tax credit. Once the combined measure failed, the Senate passed the homebuyer provision by unanimous voice vote.

Under current law, homebuyers who signed purchase agreements by April 30 must close on their new homes by Wednesday to qualify for credits of up to $8,000. The bill would give those buyers until Sept. 30 to complete the purchases and qualify for the credit. The House passed that measure Tuesday as a stand-alone bill.
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