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Obama keeps pressure on GOP on jobless aid

Even as Senate Democrats are expected to defeat a filibuster on an extension of unemployment benefits, the president doesn't relent in his attack.

July 20, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro and Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — With the votes in hand to break a GOP filibuster against an extension of jobless benefits, President Obama stepped up pressure Monday on Republicans in an attack that has become a staple of his midterm election political strategy.

The Senate plans to vote Tuesday to overcome Republican refusal to vote on new aid to an estimated 2.5 million unemployed Americans whose jobless benefits have lapsed because of the length of time they have been out of work.

Once Senate passage of $33.9 billion in extra funds is also approved by the House, a step expected this week, money will begin flowing to jobless workers across the country. California, New York, Florida and Illinois are among the states with the highest numbers of jobless whose benefits have expired. The benefits would be retroactive to June and last through November.

The defeat of the GOP filibuster is considered assured. The move requires 60 votes, a mark Senate Democrats will reach Tuesday after their newest member, Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, is sworn in to take the place of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd. A key vote will take place minutes after Goodwin takes his place in the Senate.

Nonetheless, Obama sought to increase pressure on Republicans Monday, appearing in the White House Rose Garden to press his election-year message that the GOP is blocking financial help to struggling Americans.

"A partisan minority in the Senate has used parliamentary maneuvers to block a vote, denying millions of people who are out of work much-needed relief," Obama said.

Obama appeared with a trio of unemployed Americans to demonstrate the personal toll of legislative inaction. Senate Republicans, citing concerns about deficit spending, have invoked the filibuster three times to block passage of an aid bill.

Obama's decision to weigh in on the Senate fight illustrates the partisan divide and could help buffer Democrats from voters' kitchen table anxieties as economists forecast a lagging recovery.

Obama's value as a messenger may have limits. A fresh wave of polling shows that he is at a low point in his presidency. Voters are unhappy with his management of the economy, which remains their overriding worry. With oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico over the last three months, Obama has been distracted and unable to make job creation his sole focus in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Besides persistent unemployment, voters are also concerned about rising deficits and the kind of activist government Obama has embraced.

Democrats fear steep losses in November. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 45% of the people surveyed wanted to see Republicans regain control of Congress, compared with 43% who want to see the Democrats remain in charge.

Obama's remarks Monday also highlighted the economic questions underlying the issue of jobless benefits as parties debate the effect of such aid on the economy and on the federal deficit.

"The same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help," Obama said as he told their stories.

Republicans say they are not opposed to jobless aid — they only want to pay for it without loading up the national debt. Republicans, however, also have wondered aloud whether unemployment checks keep people from work.

"Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said during a floor debate this spring.

Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said on CNN on Monday that some economists had warned there could be a "moral hazard" in prolonged aid to jobless Americans.

But Obama rapped lawmakers "who are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job."

Economists have said there are now five unemployed people for every available U.S. job.

The average length of joblessness during the recession has been eight months — greater than any previous downturn in more than 50 years, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com.

Though studies have found that unemployment benefits can cause slight increases in how long workers remain jobless, the amount of the uptick is debatable.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, estimates that extending unemployment insurance, often called UI, contributes up to a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate.

"But that's not really what this debate is about — this is about paying for UI benefits," Holtz-Eakin said Monday. "That's something they can and should do. It can't be that hard to come up with the money."

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