STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Starting today, close to 400,000 jobless Americans begin to see their long-term unemployment benefits cut off. That's because Congress failed to pass a short- term extension before going out on its break. Senate Republicans insist that money needs to be found to pay for extending those benefits for another 30 days, and they don't want to add billions more to the deficit. Democrats contend the plight of the long-term unemployed is an emergency. NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: It was the Senate's last day in session. Members of the House had already voted to extend jobless benefits and gone home for the spring break. Everyone knew those benefits would be running out today should the Senate fail to act. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin pleaded with his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor.
INSKEEP: 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. Let's do the right thing and extend the unemployment benefits for one month.
INSKEEP: I would object.
WELNA: Coburn's objection meant Democrats would have to muster 60 votes and spend days more debating to get past his opposition.
INSKEEP: Whether you call it filibuster, whether you call it obstruction, as a grandfather of five children that is truly reflective of tons of grandparents out there and tons of grandkids out there, I'm not gonna agree.
WELNA: Jon Kyl, who's the Senate's number two Republican, voted for that extension. Since then, though, Kyl and other Republicans have apparently concluded that joining the pay-for-it cause is good politics.
INSKEEP: It took an act of courage, like Senator Bunning's, to perhaps jolt people into the awareness of just how bad it had really gotten. And after we reflected on the fact that we didn't give him as much help as we probably should have, that we wanted to do it in a concerted way that could be successful next time.
WELNA: So, one after another, Republicans trooped to the Senate floor and backed up Coburn's demand that extended unemployment benefits not increase the deficit.
INSKEEP: It is an issue that we have got to get under control, and now is the time to do it.
WELNA: That's Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss. Like Kyl, he voted last month to extend unemployment benefits.
INSKEEP: If we can't find a way to pay for $9 billion worth of expenses, then it's Katy, bar the door.
WELNA: Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow complained of being lectured to about fiscal responsibility. After all, she said, the last time the budget was balanced and the Treasury built up a big surplus was under President Clinton.
INSKEEP: Under President Bush, under the Republican Congress, that went away pretty fast by not paying for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Somehow, that was OK.
WELNA: In fact, none of the Bush tax cuts were paid for, and all of them expire at the end of this year. Still, Democrats plan to extend those for income up to a $250,000 a year. Nothing is being done to make up for the $1.3 trillion that will mean in lost revenues, but that doesn't bother number 2 Republican Kyl. He says tax cuts should be extended for those in the top income bracket as well.
INSKEEP: The money belongs to them. And if we want to extract less from them in the future, we shouldn't have to somehow make that up by finding another way to tax them to, quote, make it up for Washington.
M: It's nonsense to argue that you should pay for all new spending, but not for tax cuts.
WELNA: That's Maya MacGuineas. She heads the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She says fiscal rectitude is invoked by most lawmakers when it's politically convenient.
M: The sort of "Alice in Wonderland" feeling to this debate is that everybody says the debt is a real and growing problem, except when it's a result of the policies that they want.
WELNA: And it's not limited to taxes. Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, who warned of deficit spending on the Senate floor, is seeking more than a quarter- billion dollars worth of earmarks for his state. He stands by that request.
INSKEEP: Earmarks are less than 1 percent of the overall budget, and the number is insignificant with respect to the deficit number.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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