Senate Prepares to Debate Unemployment Extension Bill

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When the one hundred members of the U.S. Senate returned to Washington from their weeklong New Year’s vacation on Monday, they put off voting whether to open debate on a measure that would extend federal unemployment benefits.  The reason?  Seventeen senators were “not present in the chamber” due to the polar vortex wreaking havoc with air travel.

With the frozen 17 back in the saddle on Tuesday, the vote proceeded as scheduled.  Many believed that the vote would fall along party lines, leaving the Senate five votes short of the sixty needed to clear the filibuster hurdle.  Surprisingly, six Republicans voted in favor of debating the measure.  This should provide weeks or even months of spectacle as senators from opposite sides of the aisle duke it out while the potential beneficiaries of the measure continue to enjoy their Christmas present of having their unemployment benefits cut off.

Even if by some miracle the bill were to pass in both houses of Congress, unemployed Americans would not regain the three or four tiers of federal extension benefits they had received through the third week of December.  Quite the contrary.  The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act (S. 1845) would restore only three months of federal unemployment benefits.

The general idea seems to be that passing the bill is a temporary measure that would give Congress another three months to come up with a more permanent answer to the question “just how long should federal unemployment benefits last?”  From a Republican point of view, it would also provide Congress with another three months to try to find something else to cut in the federal budget to pay for the measure.

In an editorial published on Tuesday, The New York Times offered its opinion that Congress is putting on a grand show but is not serious about restoring unemployment benefits to those who have been out of work for a long time.

Perhaps the six Republican votes to open debate on the unemployment extension were designed to make the GOP look open-minded on the issue, rather than appearing to be insufferable curmudgeons.  After all, the Republican Party has everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Agreeing to debate the measure doesn’t mean that those six Republican senators will approve S. 1845 when it finally comes up for a vote.  Far from it.

For one thing, midterm congressional elections will be held later this year. Commentator Thomas B. Edsall noted this week that “in close contests, the long-term unemployed, along with their families and their friends, have the power to determine the outcome of those 2014 elections in which a percentage point gained or lost can be decisive.”

Even with Christmas over, Republicans would like to avoid playing the role of Scrooge for as long as they can get away with it.  Even House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he would consider extending benefits for the unemployed if a way can be found to pay for them.

But three months of unemployment benefits will cost somewhere around $6.5 billion. And that’s a lot of cash to find just lying around.  It may be next to impossible to get Congress to agree to cut other programs in order to fund unemployment benefits.  “The [Republican] demand for a ‘pay for’ is just another way of saying that they aren’t serious about helping those in need,” states the Times editorial.

The losers, of course, are those who have been out of work for more than six months and, despite their best efforts, still can’t find a job.

President Obama continues to urge the two parties in Congress to find sufficient common ground to pass the unemployment extension.  In his weekly radio address on Saturday, he cited out-of-work mothers and fathers who are unable to provide their children with even basic necessities thanks to Congress allowing the law to expire last month.  “Denying families that security is just plain cruel,” stated the president.  “We’re a better country than that.  We don’t abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough — we keep the faith with them until they start that new job.”

As to Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate, President Obama’s plea is likely to fall on deaf ears.  Should Republicans stand firm in their miserliness, it is imperative that their own plea for our votes likewise fall on deaf ears come November.


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