Senate passes jobless aid after lengthy debate

Democrats criticize the GOP's insistence on a prolonged debate on extending unemployment benefits. The bill is approved 59 to 39.

July 22, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington —

The Senate approved legislation Wednesday to extend unemployment benefits for 2.5 million jobless Americans, clearing the way for House passage and President Obama's swift signature.

The 59-39 vote followed weeks of GOP efforts to block the bill. Democrats managed to break the filibuster Tuesday with the help of two Republicans, but final Senate passage came only after a lengthy debate Wednesday, which the minority party insisted upon.

The House is expected to approve the measure Thursday. Once Obama signs it, aid will resume for Americans whose jobless benefits have lapsed and will continue through November.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine, supported the bill.

Democrats spent the day scolding most Republicans for delaying the inevitable.

"Why would someone in public service do such a thing?" said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "Why would they be so callous?"

"Hard times require hard decisions," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), as he pressed for cuts to finance the unemployment aid. "This isn't a delay tactic. This is a real philosophical difference about how we get out of the mess we're in."

Republicans argued that the $33.9-billion cost of the benefits should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. The GOP is making debt and deficit reduction a pillar of its midterm election strategy, appealing to voters nervous about the record federal debt brought about by tax cuts, war outlays and the economic downturn.

Democrats contend the cost of such jobless extension benefits traditionally has been considered an emergency, not requiring a funding source.

The unemployment extension would provide aid for workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. During the recession, Congress supplemented the program to allow up to 99 weeks of aid.

The legislation does not extend the 99-week limit but continues payments to those eligible for up to that amount through November. Payments would be retroactive to late May.

Experts say the labor market remains distressed, with just one job for every five people looking for work. The national unemployment rate is 9.5%, and 12.3% in California.

The White House criticized the GOP's insistence on a prolonged debate after losing the filibuster vote. "The livelihoods of nearly 3 million Americans shouldn't hinge on partisan game-playing in Washington," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Republicans forced votes on several last-ditch attempts to offset the cost of the bill as well as on unrelated measures, such as repealing the federal estate tax and halting the administration's lawsuit against Arizona's controversial new immigration law.

Democrats rejected all the proposals, including one from Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) that would have paid for the jobless aid using unspent funds from last year's economic recovery act.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) argued that the stimulus funds had helped create new jobs through highway projects, pointing to improvements underway along Southern California's 405 Freeway.

"I've met those workers who have jobs because of the economic recovery act," she said.

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