The Senate narrowly voted Tuesday to advance a temporary extension of unemployment benefits to over one million jobless Americans, giving some unexpected momentum in the new year to Democrats and the Obama administration.
The vote to move forward with the legislation was 60-37. With six Republicans supporting all present Democrats on the move to begin formal debate on the bill, supporters reached the 60 votes required to advance it.
The measure, sponsored by Republican Dean Heller of Nevada and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, would have retroactively restored the federal aid payments to about 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans that expired at the end of last year. That aid had previously kicked in after state benefits expired, after about 26 months or more in most states.
Five Republicans joined Heller to support moving forward on the legislation -- Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana and Rob Portman of Ohio. Those lawmakers may not support final passage of the bill, but their support Monday kept the legislation alive despite last-minute doubts that the procedural vote would pass.
Even if the final bill does pass the Senate, it's not clear that the GOP-led House will take it up. House Republican leaders have painted the current proposal as fiscally irresponsible.
Senate pponents of the measure said that the emergency aid program, first enacted during the height of the economic recession, was never intended for continuous renewal and that the aid should at least be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“Spending $6.5 billion in three months without trying to find ways to pay for it or improve the underlying policy is irresponsible and takes us in the wrong direction,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee in a statement.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed paying for the insurance extension by delaying a key mandate in the president’s health care law, a major Republican objective and a clear non-starter with Democrats. That proposal was immediately rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a mere “guise to obstruct.”
Outside conservative groups like the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and the anti-tax Club for Growth had also urged a “no” vote on Monday’s procedural measure, calling the extension proposal fiscally irresponsible.
Supporters – including the White House – argued that the abrupt end to the benefits on December 28 has plunged the long-term jobless into further desperation and will hurt the American economy as a whole if not reversed by a retroactive extension.
“This investment in our fellow Americans is one of the most effective ways to spark and sustain an economic recovery,” said Reid, who accused Republican opponents of the legislation of “callously turned their backs on the long-term unemployed.”
President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak about the unemployment insurance extension shortly after the Senate vote. He is sure to paint the GOP as out of touch with issues like income inequality and the plight of the working poor, issues that Democrats believe will mobilize their political base in 2014 and beyond.
Top Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Sunday that Republicans will pay at the ballot box if don’t address economic issues like jobless aid.
“The tectonic plates of our politics have changed,” he said during an appearance on ABC. “For the first five years of the Obama administration, the two issues that dominated were health care and budget deficit. This year, dealing with declining middle class incomes and not enough job growth will be the number one issue.”