Senate Democrats broke through a stubborn Republican filibuster Tuesday and pressed to restart jobless benefits for 2½ million Americans still unable to find work in the frail national economic recovery. The Democrats were victorious by the single vote of a new senator sworn in only moments earlier.
Senators voted 60-40 to move ahead on the bill, clearing the way for a final vote in the chamber on Wednesday.
The recovery from the nation's long and deep recession has produced relatively few new jobs so far, and millions of people's unemployment benefits began running out seven weeks ago as Congress bogged down in an impasse over whether the $34 billion cost of a fresh extension of benefits should be paid for with budget cuts or be added to the $13 trillion national debt.
Democrats emphasized the plight of the unemployed and argued that putting money in the pockets of jobless families would also boost economic revival.
"This bill is about jobs because unemployment insurance goes to people who will spend it immediately," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "That would increase economic demand. And that would help support our fragile economic recovery."
But the numbers are far smaller than last year's $862 billion stimulus legislation. Republicans have blocked Democratic add-ons, such as aid to state governments.
"It's too small to have any noticeable impact on the economy's growth rate," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. "But the benefits do provide an important safety net for people during these difficult economic times."
The economy has added 882,000 jobs so far this year — but many of those were only temporary positions as the federal government geared up to conduct the U.S. Census.
Many Republicans have voted in the past for deficit-financed benefits extension — including twice under the most recent Bush administration. But with the deficit well in excess of $1 trillion, they now say it should be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
"We've repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And we are ready to support one now," 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."
After initially feeling political heat this winter when a lone GOP senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, briefly blocked a benefits extension in February, the GOP has grown increasingly comfortable opposing the legislation.
Democrats said that in tough times the government invariably lengthens the eligibility period for jobless benefits as more and more people chase fewer jobs. Such efforts have been deficit-financed — which policymakers and economists say has a stimulative effect on the economy.
The White House signaled Monday that the administration may seek another renewal of benefits in November if unemployment remains painfully high.
After Tuesday's vote, President Barack Obama assailed Republicans for "obstruction and game playing" and promised to redouble his efforts to win enactment of legislation to help small businesses and cash-starved states and to renew an expired middle-class tax cut.
The vote to break the filibuster was a modest victory for Obama and the Democrats, whose more ambitious hopes for jobs legislation have mostly fizzled in the face of GOP opposition in the Senate.
The jobless benefits fight is looming as an issue for the upcoming midterm elections, with Democrats assailing Republicans as harshly seeking to deny benefits to the almost 5 million jobless people whose six months of state-paid benefits have run out. The measure provides federally financed extensions that allow the chronically jobless up to 99 weeks of benefits averaging $309 a week.
But Republicans cast themselves as standing against out-of-control budget deficits, a stand that's popular with their core conservative supporters and the tea party activists whose support they're courting in hopes of retaking control of Congress.
The filibuster-breaking vote came moments after Democrat Carte Goodwin was sworn in to succeed West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who died last month at 92. Goodwin was the crucial 60th senator needed to defeat the Republican filibuster. The Senate gallery was packed with Goodwin supporters, who broke into applause as he cast his "aye" vote.
Two Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, voted to end the filibuster. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democrat to break with his party and vote to sustain it.
After a final Senate vote, the House is expected to approve the legislation and send it to Obama later this week.
Tuesday's action capped months of battling over the jobless benefits extension, which started in February as just one piece of a broader jobs package that included many other provisions such as restoring expired business tax breaks and helping state governments pay their bills.
That broader measure advanced in fits and starts — including a measure that passed the Senate in March that would have added $100 billion to the deficit. But the sands shifted and it collapsed in June despite being cut back considerably.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., then pressed a bare-bones jobless benefits measure — only to fall one vote short because of Byrd's death.
The measure would reauthorize the extended benefits program through the end of November, providing payments to millions of people who've been out of work for six months or more. Maximum benefits in some states are far higher than the $309 a week nationwide average payment. In Massachusetts, the top benefit is $943 a week; in Mississippi, it is $235.
This would be the eighth extension of unemployment benefits since July 2008, at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $120 billion.