Extension Of Unemployment Benefits Clears Hurdle
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
It took nearly two months, five tries and 60 votes, but today, Senate Democrats finally managed to overcome a GOP filibuster and advance a bill extending long-term unemployment benefits. Key to breaking the impasse was the swearing in this afternoon of the Senate's newest and youngest member, Carte Goodwin. He replaced West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who died last month.
As NPR's David Welna reports, Democrats wasted no time getting Goodwin to cast his first vote.
(Soundbite of applause)
DAVID WELNA: Both Democrats and Republicans stood and applauded this afternoon after Vice President Biden administered the oath of office to Carte Goodwin. The 36-year-old lawyer was appointed last week by the governor of West Virginia. And as his first act, Goodwin voted to move ahead on the stalled unemployment benefits. That vote proved crucial for ending the stalemate.
Majority leader Harry Reid said later, doing what was right should not have passed by only the slimmest of margins.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We've seen our constituents fight through this crisis. They haven't given up, so we couldn't give up on them. That's why we kept pushing and that's why we'll keep fighting.
WELNA: The fight over extending unemployment benefits has been going on since February and it's already an election year epic. That was underscored yesterday when President Obama weighed in on the standoff at the White House.
President BARACK OBAMA: It's time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics. It's time to do what's right, not for the next election, but for the middle class.
WELNA: On the Senate floor today, minority leader Mitch McConnell accused the president of turning the debate over unemployment benefits into what McConnell called a political exercise. Republicans, McConnell said, do want to extend unemployment benefits, they just don't want to add to the deficit in doing so.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Last November the president himself described a bill to extend unemployment benefits as fiscally responsible because it didn't add to the debt. So according to the president's own logic, Democrats who vote to pass this bill and add nearly $34 billion more to the national debt will be doing so in a fiscally irresponsible way. And Republicans who insist on passing it without adding to the debt are being responsible.
WELNA: But two Republicans did not follow their leader. Both Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine voted with all but one of the Democrats to break the GOP filibuster. Snowe said it's a matter of what's most important.
Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): A deficit is problematic. I mean, I understand what the minority leader is saying, absolutely. But I think in this instance, I have said from the outset that with respect to unemployment benefits, they truly are an emergency, you know, for the millions of people who depend on them.
WELNA: Congressional expert Sandy Maisel of Maine's Colby College says Republicans have largely succeeded in making the deficit a big issue, but not so much in Maine.
Professor SANDY MAISEL (Congressional Expert, Colby College): It's very difficult in Maine to demagogue an issue without the people figuring out that's what you're doing. And neither Senator Snowe nor Senator Collins has done that.
WELNA: Maisel predicts Republicans stated aversion to deficits will increasingly be challenged this year by Democrats and note that the GOP backs extending the Bush tax cuts that expire at the end of the year, even though that could vastly deepen the deficit. Meanwhile, it's likely the nearly seven million people eligible for extended unemployment benefits will be able to count on them again once the House gives its expected approval tomorrow.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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