When members of Congress return from their Fourth of July break Monday, they'll find a big challenge waiting for them right where they left it. The issue is unemployment — specifically an extension of benefits for people who've lost their jobs. The debate has turned into a high-stakes, election-year stand-off over deficits.
More than 2 million people have had their benefits cut off in the six-plus weeks since lawmakers began debating the bill.
Ever since the Eisenhower administration, Congress has approved jobless benefits that go beyond the usual half-year for up to two years of benefits during times of high unemployment.
Democrats want to extend those now-expired benefits another six months. At about $300 a week per beneficiary, that would cost around $34 billion. All but two Senate Republicans say they won't extend those expired benefits unless Congress cuts spending elsewhere; they say they don't want to add to the deficit.
Shortly before he voted to block consideration of an extension, Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown said the issue was about "not burdening future generations."
"That will allow us to provide for the needs of our citizens without putting more debt on the credit card," he said. "It's the checking account versus the credit card."
Democrats argue that Brown and 11 other Republicans had no problem adding $33 billion to the deficit to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The other argument Democrats make is a moral one: With very few jobs to be had out there, the larger society should provide long-term unemployment benefits until the job situation gets better.
Plus, they say, you don't get people back to work through austerity measures. As Majority Leader Harry Reid recently pointed out, the money that's paid out for unemployment benefits gets spent immediately — spurring $1.60 worth of economic activity for every dollar that's spent.
"These are monies that are creating jobs," he said. "We are doing something that is very American — very American — and that is helping people at a time of emergency."
There is a ray of hope for people who have already exhausted the standard 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, however. Democrats have enlisted two Republicans to their side and now are just one vote short of the 60 they'd need to break a GOP filibuster. And that one vote could come from the West Virginia seat opened up by the death of Democrat Robert Byrd; his replacement may be appointed as soon as next week.