Playing Political Football With Jobless Benefits

When it comes to jobs, the recession isn’t over. Unemployment is still near 10 percent, leaving millions of Americans out of work. Seems like an extension of federal unemployment insurance would be a no-brainer — especially with a House and Senate controlled by Democrats. But instead, the issue has been a political football all year.

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The U.S. is slowly rebounding from a deep recession, but the recovery has brought few new jobs with it. Markets and businesses are improving, but unemployment remains high.

In recent months, Congress has passed several bills trying to stimulate job growth. Now before it goes on a Memorial Day recess, it's attempting to extend unemployment benefits again. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: It's a little like deja vu, or that movie "Groundhog Day." This will be the fourth time Congress extends unemployment benefits in less than a year - that is if it passes this time.

At first, it was a no-brainer: Jobs are scarce, so give people a little more time to find work. Last fall, it was so uncontroversial that the House passed an unemployment extension by a voice vote. No one bothered to write down the yeas or nays.

When it got to the Senate, though, it stalled out, much to the annoyance of Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Seven thousand people a day were losing their unemployment insurance while we dithered up here trying to decide whether or not we were going to actually have a vote on this matter.

SEABROOK: The Senate finally passed it in November, 98 to zero. No one wants to cut people off during the holidays. By March, unemployment benefits were running out again, and a few Republicans didn't want to extend them anymore, at least not with borrowed money.

So while Minnesota Democrat Al Franken presided over the Senate, Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning waged a one-man war against extending unemployment.

Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): Is there objection?

Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): I object.

Sen. FRANKEN: Objection is heard.

SEABROOK: Then Bunning relented, and Congress managed to extend unemployment for a month, which brings us to April, when benefits starting running our again. On the Senate floor, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin made this plea:

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): Let's have a little heart. Let's have a little compassion. Let's have a little understanding of what these people are going through every day in their lives, the stress that they have. And let's do the right thing and extend the unemployment benefits for one month.

SEABROOK: By then, many more Republicans had gotten tired of deficit spending and Democrats' dire warnings. This time, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn stood with Bunning and others.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Whether you call it filibuster or whether you call it obstruction, as a grandfather of five children, I'm not going to agree.

SEABROOK: And this time, Republicans did block it, and the Senate left town for spring break. So some people, long out of work, began to lose unemployment checks, and Congress heard from them. When lawmakers got back to town, they extended benefits again.

Feeling deja vu yet? Well, it's now a month later, and benefits are about to expire again. This time, the fight's going to be harder. Now it's not just between the parties but among Democrats.

Senator RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): It is embarrassing for the Democratic Party that stands for the little guy.

SEABROOK: Arizona's Raul Grijalva co-chairs the Progressive Caucus of the House Democrats. He's angry that conservative Democrats, known as blue dogs, are now the ones throwing red flags.

But when will it end, asks South Dakota Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a blue dog leader. When will Congress stop spending borrowed money, even for a worthy cause?

Senator STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN (Democrat, South Dakota): We would hope that we could come together and have the hearings that can inform our decisions going forward rather than scrambling a few days before something expires and expect us to swallow hard and add more to the deficit.

SEABROOK: Voters, too, are increasingly worried about deficits, and jobs, as well. So what most Democrats want to do at this point is extend benefits again, at least until they get back from their recess.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.

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