Senate OKs Yellen, To Take Up Jobless Benefits Tuesday

The Senate on Monday voted to confirm Janet Yellen as the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve. But it delayed at the last minute taking a procedural vote on extending federal jobless benefits.

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Neither arctic conditions nor cancelled flights kept most of the Senate from returning to Washington after the holidays for last night's vote on the new chair of the Federal Reserve.

GREENE: All but 17 senators showed up, and most voted to confirm Janet Yellen. She will replace Ben Bernanke at the end of the month, the first woman to head the central bank in its 100-year history.

MONTAGNE: The number of missing senators did affect another much-watched vote. It postponed action on a bill that temporarily extends long-term unemployment benefits. That vote is now slated for today.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: For many Democrats, last night's 56 to 26 vote confirming Janet Yellen to head the Fed was a ringing bipartisan endorsement of the need for tighter supervision of the nation's big banks.

Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown hailed Yellen as an advocate for the victims of the 2008 economic implosion.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: In the years since the crash, Governor Yellen has been a voice on the need for strong, sensible regulations that protect American workers and small businesses, instead of the too-big-to-fail banks.

WELNA: Eleven Republicans joined every voting Democrat in confirming Yellen. But Iowa's Chuck Grassley, who's the top Republican on the Finance Committee, did not. The Fed, he said, has been doling out too much easy money in its push to revive the economy.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: We need a chairman focused on a strong dollar and low inflation.

WELNA: Not one Republican opposed holding the vote on Yellen's confirmation. But when the Senate then turned to the matter of unemployment benefits, number two Republican John Cornyn of Texas objected to a vote.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: This is a serious issue, but if this was anything other than a political exercise, the majority leader would've rescheduled this vote when we did not have 17 members of the United States Senate unable to be here and vote on this.

WELNA: Majority Leader Harry Reid responded by rescheduling the vote for later this morning. He did so after commending his fellow Nevadan, Republican Dean Heller, for co-sponsoring the bill that would restore unemployment payments that lapsed 11 days ago for 1.3 million jobless Americans. Heller said he was acting on behalf of the many who remain unemployed in Nevada.

SEN. DEAN HELLER: These are hardworking individuals who rely on these benefits. They are trying to find a job. They want to provide for their children. But for these benefits to simply vanish without giving families the time to plan or figure out alternatives to help them get by, to me, is just not right.

WELNA: And Rhode Island's Jack Reed, the bill's Democratic co-sponsor, added that the bill's really only a measure to buy time.

SEN. JACK REED: We've tailored this, Senator Heller and I, so that it's just three months. So it provides the immediate assistance to unemployed workers. It's retroactive, so we'll pick up those people who lost their benefits December 28th. But it also gives the Senate, the appropriate committees and the House the ability to think through this program in an orderly way.

WELNA: Typically, such long-term unemployment payments have not been paid for by cutting spending elsewhere. But Republicans are insisting on such offsets this time. Maine Republican Susan Collins is seeking reelection this year.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I want us to get on the bill, so that we can talk about an offset to pay for it.

WELNA: Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who's not up for reelection, says he won't vote to move forward on the bill. And what would he say to the thousands in his state who've just lost their unemployment benefits?

SEN. PAT TOOMEY: That I'm going to continue to work for policies that help create jobs, which is what people want the most.

BROWN: Tennessee Republican Bob Corker also intends to block any extension of benefits.

SEN. BOB CORKER: Look, I think everyone understands this first phase is nothing but a political act. And I think, hopefully, you know, we'll do something that makes greater sense.

WELNA: But Democrats insist this election year is the time to address income inequality. Majority Leader Reid says jobless benefits will be followed on his agenda by a bill raising the minimum wage.

SEN. HARRY REID: When a mother or a father working two or three jobs still can't afford groceries and rent the same month, it's a sign something is wrong in this country.

WELNA: And Democrats are confident most voters feel the same way.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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