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Sen. Olympia Snowe, in letter to Harry Reid, urges stand-alone jobless aid bill

(Melina Mara - The Washington Post)
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By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010

One day after voting to block Democratic legislation that would have extended emergency jobless benefits, a Republican senator urged Democrats to try again, saying she would support a stripped-down bill aimed solely at guaranteeing unemployment checks to millions of people who have been out of work more than six months.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a key moderate whose vote had been ardently sought by Democratic leaders, sent a letter Friday to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), arguing that the plight of the long-term unemployed must be swiftly addressed.

"The hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans who are losing jobless benefits every week deserve our immediate attention," Snowe wrote, calling for "a free-standing extension of unemployment insurance benefits" to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote early next week. "Separating the unemployment insurance provisions [from numerous other provisions in the bill] and passing it as emergency legislation acknowledges the urgency of helping those who continue to look for work."

Reid spokesman Jim Manley derided the request, noting that Republicans have in recent weeks blocked efforts to push through the same stand-alone extension of jobless benefits that Snowe is now requesting. If Snowe wants to help jobless workers, Manley said, she should line up support among her GOP colleagues to break a stalemate that has dragged on for more than two months.

"We appreciate Senator Snowe's concerns, but the fact is that she is sending the letter to the wrong person and to the wrong party," Manley wrote in an e-mail. "We know that the thousands of unemployed workers in Maine want an explanation as to why she joined with all Republicans several times to vote against legislation to help the unemployed . . . but Senator Snowe provides no evidence that any other Republicans support her proposal."

The exchange comes amid mounting anxiety among advocates for the jobless and other groups over the Senate's failure to approve additional assistance to the unemployed. Senate Democratic leaders announced Thursday that they were shelving the effort after all 40 GOP senators and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted to block the latest version of their aid package.

Republicans have steadfastly opposed the bill, arguing that it would worsen an already record budget deficit, and insisted that the cost of the package be covered with cuts in existing programs. Some conservative Democrats have also expressed concerns about the impact of the package on the deficit, which has reached record levels amid the recession.

In addition to extending emergency unemployment benefits through November, the package would have provided state governments with $16 billion in additional Medicaid funds, money that 30 states are counting on to balance their 2011 budgets. It also would have extended expired tax breaks for businesses and individuals, including a tax credit for research and development that is prized by some of the nation's largest companies.

In the House, Democrats appeared more receptive to a standalone bill. Senior aides said the idea was under discussion, and that a bill could be unveiled as soon as next week.

"It really has to happen," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said of reauthorizing extended benefits in an interview Friday with Huffington Post. Even if the House were to act, however, it was not clear that the Senate could push through an emergency bill before the July 4 recess.

On Friday, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), whose state has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, bemoaned the bill's failure. Unless the measure is revived, she said, Michigan will have to slice $500 million out of next year's budget, a sum that she said would force thousands of state layoffs and the potential elimination of state services such as long-term care or mental-health coverage.

"Millions of people across the country are hoping for some relief," Granholm said, adding that governors are discussing a bipartisan lobbying campaign. "The line in the sand that's been drawn by Republicans on the floor of the U.S. Senate is nothing short of devastating for Michigan and people across the country."

Jobless advocates, meanwhile, began plotting their own strategy for persuading Congress to extend emergency benefits, which were triggered in 2008 and expanded in last year's economic stimulus package. The benefits provide an average of $309 a week for up to 99 weeks to people who have exhausted their state unemployment assistance. The benefits expired June 2, and an estimated 1.2 million workers have since had their checks cut off, according to the Labor Department. Unless Congress acts, the program will expire by the end of October.

As Snowe delivered her letter to Reid, Americans United for Change and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees unveiled a $100,000 TV ad campaign calling on her and her Maine colleague, Susan Collins (R), another key moderate, to "get their priorities straight after voting to cut off struggling out-of-work Mainers from unemployment benefits and threatening the jobs of cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers across the state," according a news release from the groups.

The ad will begin airing Monday in Portland and Bangor. The Maine jobless rate is just under 9 percent.


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