Bill to extend jobless benefits faces Senate showdown

By Ben Pershing
Monday, April 12, 2010

Congress is poised for another partisan showdown over extending unemployment insurance, as concerns about the growing budget deficit have complicated the path forward for an otherwise popular program.

On its first day back in session following a two-week recess, the Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to end debate on a measure extending jobless benefits, subsidies for the COBRA health insurance program and federal flood insurance through May 5. Democrats will need at least one Republican supporter to get the 60 votes necessary to proceed.

The Senate failed to agree on the bill in late March, after Republicans rejected an attempt to expedite the measure's passage. Because of the impasse, beginning April 5 more than 200,000 unemployed people who had already exhausted their states' jobless benefits could not apply for additional benefits from the federal program, according to estimates by the National Employment Law Project, a liberal advocacy group.

Each party has been eager to blame the other for the cutoff.

Democrats point out that they easily moved an extension through the House and were primed to do the same in the Senate before Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), stood in the way.

"The fact is, an extension to help American families was passed unanimously in the House before it was blocked by a handful of Senate Republicans," said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "The only point some Senate Republicans have succeeded in making is that they are out of touch with the harsh reality that some families all across America are facing today."

Republicans respond that they're not opposed to extending unemployment benefits but want to offset the $9 billion cost with spending cuts elsewhere.

"We both want to extend unemployment benefits," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the GOP's No. 3 leader. "The Democrats want to do it by adding to the debt. Republicans don't want to add to the debt."

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) made the same argument when he led the GOP's stand against a previous extenders package at the beginning of March. That blockade lasted five days and drew national press attention, much of it unfavorable to Bunning and his party.

Then, many Republicans were privately critical of Bunning's tactics and fearful of being tarred as unsympathetic to the jobless. Now, Republicans are largely united in their stand, and the vast majority are expected to vote Monday against moving forward on the extensions.

"I think what's changed is the spotlight is now on the looming crisis with the federal debt," Alexander said, adding that when Bunning made his stand, the health-care reform bill was still sucking up much of the political oxygen.

The government's rising tide of red ink has moved front and center in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned that growing budget deficits imperiled the economy's long-term stability. And Congress might soon take up a fiscal 2011 budget resolution that foresees unbalanced books for years to come.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), pointed out that unemployment insurance has often been treated as emergency spending in the past, and that many economists think jobless benefits have a stimulative effect that would be muffled if they were offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

But Coburn, long a leader of the Senate's fiscal hawks, said the political winds are shifting in his favor.

"We can't wait anymore. Every day we don't start taking care of this problem makes it worse," Coburn said, suggesting that the United States could one day share the fate of economically embattled Greece.

Coburn vowed to try to block any spending bill the rest of the year that isn't offset, which will include the $33 billion supplemental measure the Pentagon has requested to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he is unlikely to succeed in blocking the military measure, Coburn said he hopes his stand draws increased attention to the deficit issue.

Both the House and Senate have passed jobs bills with longer-term extensions of jobless benefits, but now the two chambers must reconcile their versions of the measure. In the meantime, Democrats contend that Republicans will pay a price at the polls for their tactics, particularly if they vote en masse Monday against the extenders measure.

"Rhetorical support for the idea [of extending benefits] may be one thing," Manley said, "but what happens when you're on the record time and time again voting against things like unemployment insurance, COBRA and flood insurance?"

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