Senate breaks GOP opposition on unemployment benefits


Democrats on Tuesday broke Republican-led opposition to a bill that would extend unemployment benefits to 2.5 million jobless Americans, but the vote only hardened the political divide and almost assured that any further domestic aid before November will be all but impossible.

Though the Senate reached the 60 votes needed to end a GOP filibuster and force a final vote on the legislation, prospects for the next spending bill — enabling states to avert teacher layoffs — appeared doomed.

A vote that would send the unemployment benefits legislation to the House could come as soon as Wednesday. The House is expected to pass the bill and send it to President Obama for swift approval.

Obama’s high-profile push for the unemployment extension has inspired further intransigence from Republicans, who say voters are more concerned about the nearly $1.5-trillion federal deficit than government attempts to spur the economy with more spending.

But Democrats intend to press forward this week with new initiatives to promote job growth, further testing the two parties’ approach to economic issues heading into the midterm election.

“The other side stood in the way for so long,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) after Tuesday’s procedural vote. “It shouldn’t take the slimmest of margins to do what’s right.”

Unemployment aid had stalled since June as most Republicans in the Senate repeatedly blocked bills they believe would add unnecessarily to the national debt.

Most Republicans want to pay for the jobless benefits by using unspent funds from the economic recovery bill passed last year. Democrats say unemployment benefits have traditionally been considered emergency spending and don’t need a funding source. Republicans blocked three previous attempts to approve unemployment aid.

The stripped-back $33.9-billion unemployment package, shorn of earlier domestic spending proposals, would extend benefits through November, and be retroactive to the late May cutoff.

Senate Democrats overcame the Republican-backed filibuster on a vote of 60 to 40, joined by two Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. One Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted no.

The newest senator, Democrat Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, cast his vote minutes after being sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden to replace the late Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Tuesday’s vote came as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment rates have dipped in many states. But economists warn that the recovery is fragile, and the national unemployment rate continues to hover at 9.5%.

Despite losing the filibuster vote, Republicans appeared emboldened by their opposition, swatting back at Obama’s earlier remarks that they were “advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job.”

Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, said the debate was not about whether extending aid to jobless Americans was a worthy pursuit, but whether the costs should be covered by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

“Unfortunately, the president has decided to turn this debate into a political exercise,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “And in doing so, he cheapens public discourse and does a disservice to the people this bill is meant to help.”

Republicans have insisted that offsetting the costs is paramount, even as they push to extend George W. Bush administration tax breaks without making cuts elsewhere. Obama opposes the tax breaks for families making more than $250,000 a year.

Among the next priorities for Congress is approving legislation to fund a $37-billion troop increase in Afghanistan, a bill that has stalled after the House added $10 billion to protect 140,000 teachers nationwide from layoffs this fall.

The legislation appears unlikely to have the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.