Senate Moves Forward On Unemployment Benefits

In a tally that surprised even its sponsors, a half dozen Republican senators gave Democrats enough votes to move forward with a bill extending emergency unemployment benefits for another three months. The proposal likely faces an even tougher hurdle in the Republican-controlled House.

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The fight on Capitol Hill over whether to extend long-term unemployment benefits has echoes of so many debates of the past over the best way for the government to help people who are struggling economically. Supporters of measures like this say how can Washington turn its back on people who are out of work and trying to pay the bills? Opponents talk about how short-term solutions can be a distraction from getting to the real problems.

Yesterday, a bill extending unemployment benefits for three months averted a Republican filibuster in the Senate. President Obama immediately urged Congress to pass the bill, saying the extension will provide, quote, "a vital economic lifeline."

But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, even if this legislation does ultimately pass the Senate, it faces a stiff battle in the House.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: By Capitol Hill standards, this was about as nail-bitingly suspenseful as it gets. A vote count that genuinely caught lawmakers off-guard. By yesterday morning, many Democrats had expected to see a three-month extension of jobless benefits fail, including Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a lead sponsor of the bill.

SEN. JACK REED: I guess being Irish I'm always expecting the worst. So, yeah, I was surprised. But that might be more cultural than political.

CHANG: Moments later, President Obama praised the Senate for clearing the path, and he urged Congress to swiftly finish the job and restore benefits that had expired last month for 1.3 million people.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These are not statistics. These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members. It could at some point be any of us.

CHANG: But the vast majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate are solidly opposed to the measure. Many, like Jeff Sessions of Alabama, argue these payments will do nothing to boost job growth or to address the root causes of unemployment.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: You have fever for two weeks - very high fever - and all you're doing is taking an aspirin is not a very smart thing. We need to figure out what's causing this fever.

CHANG: Even Republicans who voted to let the bill proceed in the Senate have real concerns, such as Dan Coats of Indiana. He still wants to see cuts in the federal budget to absorb the six-and-a-half billion dollars these benefits will cost.

SEN. DAN COATS: This deserves a debate. And if we can put reforms in the program to ensure that those who really need it can get it, and we can find a way to pay for it, that ought to be given an chance. It's really going to be up to the majority leader as to whether he allows us to debate this, to offer amendments and vote and get it to the point where I can support it.

CHANG: But majority leader Harry Reid says he it's inappropriate to find budget cuts when Congress is providing emergency relief.

SEN. HARRY REID: My colleagues say they want to pay for this bill. This is new religion for them because all five times that President Bush signed extended unemployment benefits, it wasn't paid for.

CHANG: Senate leaders say the tectonic plates are shifting this election year; gripes about Obamacare will soon give way to concerns about unemployment. But as confidently as they spoke yesterday, the Senate's proposal still needs to pass the House to become law - and it's not looking pretty.

Outside conservative groups are grading lawmakers for their votes on this bill. And Andrew Roth, of Club for Growth, says he's confident the bill will die in the lower chamber.

ANDREW ROTH: The House has said that it's dead on the arrival. And I'd like to take them at their word on that. Now, in the end, will they cave to Harry Reid and President Obama? Sure, that's always a possibility. But right now, it looks like they're going to demand some sort of concessions in order to pass the bill.

CHANG: House speaker John Boehner stood his ground Tuesday, and said in a statement that the House will focus on growing the economy, and that the President needs to come up with a way to offset the cost of any extension.

House Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan says the speaker is just trying to make unemployment someone else's problem.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: I don't think we should play ping-pong with the lives and the lifelines of the unemployed of this country. I don't think it should be offset. If the speaker thinks so, let him propose a specific offset, which he hasn't.

CHANG: Levin and other Democrats say this three-month extension will buy everyone some time. Pass it now. And then, during the next three months, they promise they'll be happy to talk about any offsets or job growth programs Republicans desire.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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