Economists worry that the long-term unemployed will lose their work skills… (Ethan Miller / Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama signed an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed Thursday night that will allow those whose aid expired to apply retroactively.
When Congress passed the measure earlier in the day, it ended, at least for now, a partisan stalemate that highlighted election-year differences over federal spending.
The Senate passed the $18-billion measure, 59 to 38, with the support of 54 Democrats, three Republicans and two independents. Every other Republican opposed it; the other three Democrats were absent.
Hours later, the House passed the bill, 289 to 112.
The measure extends jobless aid through June 2. Democrats, anxious about high unemployment in an election year, are working on separate legislation to extend benefits through the end of the year.
Obama urged them to do so and said, in a statement: "In these tough economic times, it is more critical than ever to bring relief to Americans who are working every day to find a job, and families that are struggling to make ends meet."
He called job creation his top priority and pledged to "fight day and night until every American who wants a good job has one."
Unemployment benefits expired April 5 for tens of thousands who have been out of work longer than 26 weeks. The issue ignited a dispute between the parties over whether the cost of the extension should be offset by spending cuts to keep from increasing the federal budget deficit. Most Republicans said yes, but Democrats said the unemployment situation was an emergency and therefore exempt from offsetting spending cuts.
"Our debt and deficits are as much of an emergency as unemployment, yet Congress continues to pretend it can spend and borrow without restraint," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
About 212,000 people lost benefits when Congress failed to act before the expiration date, but the measure Obama signed extends the aid retroactively.
"If we do not pass this bill this week, another 200,000 Americans could lose their benefits," Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said during debate.
He accused Republicans of "playing games with the lives of unemployed Americans."
"We should not balance the budget on the backs of the unemployed," Baucus said.
Republicans were eager to use the bill to try to show that their party has a stronger commitment to fiscal discipline. "The Democrats talk the talk but can't walk the walk when it comes to getting our nation's fiscal house in order," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).
But Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said extending the benefits, which average $335 a week, was not only the humane thing to do but would speed economic recovery by giving money to people who need it most and will spend it right away.
"I wonder when it was, if ever, that a senator tried to live on $300 a week," Durbin said.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, a Republican who voted for the measure, cited continuing economic troubles in her state, where 130 workers are losing their jobs this week with the closing of the nation's last remaining sardine cannery. Republicans George V. Voinovich of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine also supported the bill. Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark R. Warner of Virginia were absent.
The bill also extends COBRA health insurance subsidies and federal flood insurance and restores Medicare payments to doctors, who were about to absorb a 21% reduction in payments.
First-time claims for jobless benefits rose by 24,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 484,000, the highest since late February
More than 11 million jobless workers are collecting some form of unemployment benefits, including nearly 5.7 million receiving extensions, according to the National Employment Law Project.