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Senate Democrats set to leap hurdle on extending jobless benefits

Senate Democrats are set to pass a key hurdle Tuesday on extending unemployment benefits for an estimated 2.5 million unemployed Americans and are expected to overcome a Republican filibuster of the new aid.

Once Senate passage of $33.9 billion in extra funds also is approved by the House, a step expected this week, money will begin flowing to jobless workers across the country. California, New York, Florida and Illinois are among the states with the highest numbers of jobless whose benefits have expired. The benefits would be retroactive to June and last through November.

Defeat of a GOP filibuster is considered assured. The move requires 60 votes, a mark Senate Democrats will reach Tuesday after their newest member, Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, is sworn in to take the place of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd. A key vote will take place minutes after Goodwin takes his place in the Senate.

Nonetheless, Obama sought to increase pressure on Republicans on Monday, appearing in the White House Rose Garden to press his election-year message that the GOP was blocking financial help to struggling Americans.

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“A partisan minority in the Senate has used parliamentary maneuvers to block a vote, denying millions of people who are out of work much-needed relief,” Obama said.

Obama appeared with a trio of unemployed Americans to demonstrate the personal toll of legislative inaction. Senate Republicans, citing concerns about deficit spending, have invoked the filibuster three times to block passage of an aid bill.

Obama’s decision to weigh in on the Senate fight illustrates the partisan divide and could help buffer Democrats from voters’ kitchen-table anxieties as economists forecast a lagging recovery.

Obama’s value as a messenger may have limits. A fresh wave of polling shows that he is at a low point in his presidency. Voters are unhappy with his management of the economy, which remains their overriding worry. With oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico over the last three months, Obama has been distracted and unable to make job creation his sole focus in the run-up to the midterm elections.

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Besides persistent unemployment, voters also are concerned about rising deficits and the kind of activist government Obama has embraced.

Democrats fear steep losses in November. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 45% of the people surveyed wanted to see Republicans regain control of Congress, compared with 43% who want to see the Democrats remain in charge.

Obama’s remarks Monday also highlighted the economic questions underlying the issue of jobless benefits as parties debate the effect of such aid on the economy and on the federal deficit.

“The same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help,” Obama said as he told their stories.

Republicans say they are not opposed to jobless aid -- they only want to pay for it without loading up the national debt. Republicans, however, also have wondered aloud whether unemployment checks keep people from work.

“Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said during a floor debate this spring.

Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said on CNN on Monday that some economists had warned there could be a “moral hazard” in prolonged aid to jobless Americans.

But Obama rapped lawmakers “who are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job.”

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Economists have said there are now five unemployed people for every available U.S. job.

The average length of joblessness during the recession has been eight months -- greater than any previous downturn in more than 50 years, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com.

Though studies have found that unemployment benefits can cause slight increases in how long workers remain jobless, the amount of the uptick is debatable.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, estimates that extending unemployment insurance, often called UI, contributes up to a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate.

“But that’s not really what this debate is about -- this is about paying for UI benefits,” Holtz-Eakin said Monday. “That’s something they can and should do. It can’t be that hard to come up with the money.”

The federal deficit is approaching a record $1.5 trillion this year, and the nation has taken on the most debt, relative to the gross domestic product, since World War II. Zandi said getting the deficit under control was important -- but not at the risk of impeding the fragile recovery.

Jobless benefits now help keep the economy from backsliding by pouring at least $8 billion monthly into the economy. Each dollar in unemployment insurance generates $1.60 in GDP growth, giving the economy more bang for the buck than any other federal stimulus spending, he said.

“The risk is, if you don’t do something like this, you could undermine the recovery,” Zandi said Monday. “The vast major of people who are on UI are there because they have no other options.”

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The National Employment Law Project has estimated that workers land better jobs if they are able to hold out a few weeks for the best fit.

“The reality is that unemployment benefits are anything but a luxury, they are a necessity to keep families going while they look harder than ever for work,” said Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director at the Washington-based advocacy group.

Congress historically has approved unemployment benefits as emergency spending measures, without requiring budget cuts elsewhere. Since the economic recovery act was passed in 2009, Congress has approved four other expansions and extensions of jobless benefits totaling $35 billion, mostly passed without offsets.

Obama’s appearance on the issue came in spite of the certainty that Congress will extend jobless benefits, reflecting his increasingly politicized approach to economic issues.

Obama also recently mocked House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) for contending that legislation overhauling financial regulations amounted to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.”

“An ant!” Obama said at a fundraising event in Kansas City, Mo., this month. “That’s what he called what we just went through. You can imagine a movie, ‘The Ant That Ate Our Economy.’ ”

Republicans took offense at Obama’s critique. “The president continues to politicize this,” Price said. “We’re borrowing money from China for our citizens’ unemployment insurance. That’s wrong.”

Nonetheless, Obama continued with his tone on Monday, even with the fight all but won.

“Over the past few weeks, a majority of senators have tried -- not once, not twice, but three times -- to extend emergency relief on a temporary basis,” Obama said. “It’s time to do what’s right, not for the next election, but for the middle class.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times


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