Senate passes extension to unemployment insurance, bill heads to House

The Senate voted 59 to 38 today in favor of a bill that would restore federal funding for extended unemployment benefits for 2.8 million Americans who are considered "long-term unemployed."

The deal, carried by Democrat senators but struck with the support of several prominent Republicans, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.), comes on the Senate's fourth vote on a bill to renew the benefits.

Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) did not cast votes.

The legislation now goes to the House, where it is believed to face a tough road toward passage.

"If our bill was put up for a vote in the House, there is no question it would pass," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a statement prior to the Senate vote. "Contrary to right-wing talking points, many of the people who would benefit this bill are out of work through no fault of their own, and have been knocking on doors and going online looking for a job for months or even years. The House needs to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans right now, without attaching extraneous issues that are merely an attempt to score political points.”

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Earlier today, seven moderate House Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner requesting that the chamber immediately take up a vote on the legislation.

"As many Americans continue to struggle without benefits, we respectfully request that the House immediately consider this bill or a similar measure to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans." declared the letter, which was signed by Reps. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Joe Heck (R-Nevada).

Boehner, as well as other members of the House's Republican leadership, have consistently panned the Senate bill, stressing that they are unlikely to allow a vote on any unemployment extension bill that does not include job creation measures.

"As the Speaker said months ago, we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs – but, last week, Senate Democratic leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all," said Michael Steel, Boehner's spokesman, in a statement today. "The American people are still asking, ‘where are the jobs?’ and House Republicans are focused on our jobs agenda for families and small businesses."

Under the federal unemployment system, someone who loses a job typically receives unemployment benefits from the state for 26 weeks. But in 2008,  Congress voted to provide additional aid that made checks available for as long as 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. Last year, lawmakers cut the maximum benefit to 73 weeks. Then, at the end of December, Congress let the federal aid lapse altogether.

That cut aid to 1 million people en masse in December who no longer had state aid, and the ranks of those no longer receiving benefits has been growing by about 72,000 a week, according to the National Employment Law Project, which lobbies on behalf of the jobless.

Republican House leadership has repeatedly stated their opposition to the Senate-passed bill, but Democratic House members and their aides insist they won't go down without a fight.

House Democrats say they plan to roll out a multi-pronged campaign -- including regional media pushes, specific targeting of moderate Republicans, and, they hope, help from the executive branch -- to force House Republican leadership to give them a vote.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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Wesley Lowery | April 7