By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A01
The Senate broke a months-long stalemate Tuesday over a plan to restore emergency jobless benefits to millions of people who have been out of work for more than six months, voting to advance the measure over Republican objections that it would add $34 billion to the nation's bloated budget deficit.
The 60 to 40 vote all but assures that the bill will pass the Senate when a final vote is taken Wednesday. The measure would then go back to the House, where leaders expect to quickly approve it and send it to the White House for President Obama's signature later this week.
Once signed, the bill would revive benefits for more than 2.5 million people whose checks were cut off when the program expired June 2. It also would ensure that up to 99 weeks of income support would be available to a broader universe of jobless workers through the end of November.
While jobless benefits have traditionally received bipartisan support in periods of high unemployment, the current round has been caught in a crossfire of partisan sniping about the deficit as lawmakers position themselves for this fall's midterm elections. In the wake of the recession, U.S. policymakers and their counterparts abroad have struggled to create jobs and bolster a sluggish recovery without adding unduly to national debt. Rising debt loads have sparked a crisis in Europe.
Pointing to growing public anxiety about U.S. debt, which now stands at more than $13 trillion, most Republicans refused to back the extension of jobless benefits unless Democrats agreed to cover its cost using unspent funds from last year's economic stimulus package.
"There's no debate in the Senate about whether we should pass a bill -- everyone agrees that we should," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "What we do not support -- and we make no apologies for -- is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control."
President Obama and fellow Democrats, meanwhile, have accused Republicans of turning their backs on the unemployed while pushing to extend tax cuts for the rich that would increase deficits by 20 times as much over the next decade.
"I will continue to fight for economic policies that will lead us out of this mess, and press Congress to act on more proposals to create new American jobs and strengthen our recovery," Obama said in a statement. "Americans who are struggling to find a job and get back on their feet deserve more than the same political game-playing and failed policies that helped cause this recession."
In the end, two Republicans -- Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine -- voted with Democrats to break the impasse; a lone Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted to continue the GOP filibuster. The clinching vote was cast by Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.), who was appointed Friday to replace Robert C. Byrd, who died last month at the age of 92.
Moments after Vice President Biden swore him into office, the chamber's newest member walked onto the Senate floor with Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), approached the clerk's desk at the front of the chamber and soberly mouthed the word "aye." Friends and family in the Senate gallery broke into applause.
"That will be a vote that helps millions of Americans," Goodwin said afterward, adding he was "privileged to have played a small role" in passing the legislation.
With the unemployment rate at 9.5 percent, 8.7 million people were receiving jobless benefits at the end of June. A little more than half received state benefits, which are typically available for 26 weeks. The rest were receiving extended benefits financed by the federal government, which are due to run out soon unless the bill before the Senate passes. The Labor Department estimates that 2.5 million people had been cut off by the end of last week.
The bill before the Senate would extend benefits retroactively. While state laws vary, Labor officials and advocates for the unemployed said some people could expect to see lump-sum payments covering lost income back to June 2. Even if the bill passes, many people will have to wait two to four weeks before checks are restored, said Rick McHugh, a staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for jobless workers.
"I'm sure it seems important to people in Washington, who are fighting over these budget points of order, but it doesn't look very important to people in the real world," said McHugh, who works in Michigan, where the jobless rate is more than 13 percent. "It's not a pleasant process to get calls from these folks who are losing their houses and losing their health insurance and taking their kids out of college and making the choices people are being forced to make in this economy."
Passage of the jobless benefits bill would mark a modest victory for Obama and congressional Democrats, who have been struggling since February to push through a significant extension of the program. The provision was originally part of a much larger package of fresh spending on the economy, but Democrats have been forced repeatedly to pare it back as conservative Democrats joined Republicans in arguing that the nation could ill afford another big hike in the national debt.
Democrats have dropped from the bill an extension of $25-a-week bonus payments that were added to unemployment checks under last year's stimulus package, and have little hope of extending subsidies that pay up to 65 percent of COBRA health insurance premiums. Obama's push for billions of dollars in state aid has also been scaled back, and Senate Democrats were in talks with Republicans late Tuesday about ditching Obama's proposal to increase lending to small businesses from another pending initiative.
Staff writer Perry Bacon contributed to this report.