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Jobless benefits clear GOP roadblock

Democrats in the Senate win an initial skirmish to restore unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of jobless people despite Republican criticism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrats in the Senate won an initial skirmish Monday to restore unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of jobless people despite Republican criticism that it would add $9 billion to the nation's debt.

The 60-34 vote killed a GOP filibuster against debating the measure, which would extend jobless benefits through May 5 along with short-term extensions of several other lapsed programs.

Senators in both parties blamed each other for allowing the programs to lapse last week, leaving several hundred thousand people who have been out of work for more than six months without federally financed benefits averaging $335 a week.

Republicans blocked the measure last month. Monday's vote buys time while House-Senate talks continue on a far larger measure to extend them through the end of the year.

At issue is unemployment compensation for more than 400,000 people whose benefits lapsed but who would have been eligible to reapply for additional weeks of compensation if the program's authority had not ended on April 5. More than 5 million people continue to receive the extended benefits, but 200,000 people each week stand to lose them if the impasse continues.

Several other programs have also lapsed, including federal flood insurance, higher Medicare payment rates for doctors and generous health insurance subsidies for people who've lost their jobs.

In practice, the expiration of the programs means that the newly jobless aren't eligible to sign up for health insurance subsidies but that people currently covered under the so-called COBRA law retain the benefit. People living in flood plains can't sign up for flood insurance, while the Medicare program has delayed payments to doctors rather than impose a 21 percent cut.

Good sign for Democrats
Monday's vote was a good sign for Democrats who want to extend the benefits without cutting spending elsewhere in the government's $3.7 trillion budget to pay for the program. But a more difficult vote on whether to waive budget rules looms as early as Tuesday, and it could fall to Maine Republican Susan Collins to decide whether the measure will advance.

Collins was one of four Republicans who voted to advance the short-term measure Monday. But she was the only Republican to break with her party last month to protect the yearlong extension of jobless benefits from a procedural move that would otherwise have killed it. Other Republicans — Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, and Olympia Snowe of Maine — also voted with Democrats to move the bill forward.

Republicans blocked the temporary measure last month, saying it should have correlating spending cuts so as to not increase the deficit. But 21 Republicans had voted for an earlier temporary measure covering March after Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., initially blocked it single-handedly and caused a public relations disaster for the party.

Now, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is leading the charge against the measure, which would add $9 billion to the deficit.

"My goal is to get it paid for," Coburn said.

"I don't think that one could contend that somewhere in the federal budget we can't find $9.5 billion over the course of the year which could be used to pay for these benefits," said GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.

‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’
But Democrats countered that extended unemployment benefits have always been financed through the deficit and that providing them to jobless people running short on cash is a good way to boost the economy.

"Unemployment extensions have always been considered emergency spending, and there's a reason for that," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "Unemployment insurance is a form of stimulus, but offsetting the extension of this program would negate the stimulative impact. It would be robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Republicans countered that they had reached a tentative agreement with Senate Democrats last month to finance a portion of the temporary benefits but that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., squashed the idea.

A long-term measure extending benefits through December would add another $50 billion to the deficit, regardless of whether Republicans find a way to prevail in the current showdown. But Republicans are likely to fight that measure, too.

Unemployment benefits run as long as 99 weeks in states with jobless rates of at least 8.5 percent. That's currently more than 30 states, including California, New York and Florida.

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell contributed to this report.