Senate Unexpectedly Moves Forward On Unemployment Benefits : It's All Politics After a procedural vote in the Senate on a bill that would temporarily extend emergency insurance for the jobless, President Obama held a White House press conference to pressure Congress to keep the momentum going. But Republican leaders say they need spending cuts or job-creation plans in return.
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Senate Unexpectedly Moves Forward On Unemployment Benefits

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Senate Unexpectedly Moves Forward On Unemployment Benefits

Senate Unexpectedly Moves Forward On Unemployment Benefits

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The Senate surprised quite a few people in Washington today when it voted to proceed on a bill to temporarily extend emergency unemployment benefits. Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting to get the measure over a key procedural hurdle.

But that was only the first step. As NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, the president is applying pressure to keep it moving.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For Democrats, extending unemployment benefits is a top legislative priority, with the added political benefit of playing up their populist message and painting Republicans as uncaring. And this morning, it seemed to be going right on script. Senate Democrats went to the floor and beat up on their Republican colleagues as if the bill was destined to hit a partisan roadblock.

SEN. HARRY REID: I'm just saying I hope that we can get them to move over and help us.

KEITH: This is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who accused Republicans of, quote, "callously turning their backs on the long-term unemployed."

REID: Failing to restore emergency assistance would not only be a crushing blow to long-term unemployed. It will be a blow to our economy.

KEITH: But then, thanks to a bare minimum of Republican support, the bill actually got enough votes to move on to the next step. An hour later, President Obama was in the East Room of the White House with unemployed Americans standing behind him. With a different outcome in the Senate, the event could have turned into an attempt at shaming congressional Republicans. Instead, the president attempted to build on what his spokesman described as momentum.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress should pass this bipartisan plan right away, and I will sign it right away. And more than one million Americans across the country will feel a little hope right away. And hope is contagious.

KEITH: He's talking about the approximately 1.3 million Americans who saw their unemployment benefits end abruptly last week when the emergency program - started during the recession - expired. Without congressional action, advocates say tens of thousands of people will lose benefits each week. Katherine Hackett, an unemployed nursing home administrator from Connecticut, is one of them.

KATHERINE HACKETT: Unemployment benefits have been absolutely essential to cover my bare necessities.

KEITH: Hackett's benefits stand to run out on February 22nd. She has two sons who are in the military and wrote a letter to the president telling him about her struggles. She introduced him at today's event but first said a little about herself.

HACKETT: I am not just sitting home enjoying the good life. My cuts include heating my house to 58 degrees, wearing a hat and a coat to stay warm because oil is expensive. I have lost weight because food is expensive.

KEITH: And that's while she's still getting benefits. President Obama said he was grateful for the Senate action and urged the House to do something too.

OBAMA: So letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong. Congress should make things right.

KEITH: There's a disagreement about precisely how to do that. House Speaker John Boehner has been saying for about a month that any benefits extension would have to be paid for and include a job creation initiative of some kind. He said in a statement today that, to date, the president has offered no such plan. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that sentiment, speaking on the Senate floor.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Yes, we should work on solutions to support those who are out of work through no fault of their own. But there is literally no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation without also finding ways to create good, stable, high-paying jobs and also trying to find the money to pay for it.

KEITH: The White House doesn't see it that way. Press Secretary Jay Carney insists Congress should pass a clean short-term extension, just like the bill that cleared a hurdle in the Senate today.

JAY CARNEY: And thereby creates a time here in Washington for further discussions about how to move forward beyond the three months.

KEITH: The bill likely faces another procedural vote in the Senate before it can move to final passage. And Republicans may be less willing to move it along without securing spending cuts in exchange. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

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