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Stabenow on Unemployment Insurance: ‘We Could Have Done This Three Weeks Ago’

With 7,000 Americans exhausting their unemployment insurance (UI) each day, Senate Democrats are hoping this week to pass legislation extending those benefits nationwide — a bill that’s been held up for weeks while upper-chamber leaders haggle over a series of controversial Republican amendments. First, though, those Democrats are taking every opportunity to place the blame for the delay squarely on the shoulders of the GOP.

[buttons] In a call with reporters Monday, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said the GOP amendments — which include efforts to screen illegal aliens out of the job market and prevent ACORN from receiving federal funds — amount to little more than “a political agenda” intended to stall the Democrats’ policy priorities. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) charged that the Republican offerings aren’t designed to better the underlying bill, “but to make partisan political points.” And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) couldn’t come up with a justification. “I don’t know how anyone can explain it,” she said.

GOP leaders have a defense. They argue that the Democrats’ strategy to pay for the $2.4 billion proposal by hitting employers with a surtax of $21 per worker will discourage new hires, thereby harming the same jobless folks it’s supposed to benefit. They also point out that it’s the Democratic majority that controls the floor schedule.

Yet Stabenow dismissed the notion that the Democrats could have acted more quickly to pass the UI extension, arguing that Republicans have used filibusters to stall legislation throughout the year, creating a backlog of legislation that’s slowed progress to a crawl.

“This has become a tactic,” Stabenow said. “We could have done this three weeks ago.”

And indeed they tried. On Oct. 8, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asked GOP leaders for unanimous consent to approve the legislation, which would extend UI benefits for 14 weeks in every state, with an additional six weeks for states where unemployment rates are higher than 8.5 percent. (The House passed a similar bill last month). But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) objected, citing the absence of a cost estimate.

Five days later, it was Stabenow who requested Republicans’ consent that the bill be passed. That time around it was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to object, citing no particular reason.

Meanwhile, the disagreement over how to approach the ACORN and immigration amendments continues, much to the disappointment of jobless advocates. Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, estimated that 1.3 million Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits unless Congress steps in with an extension. The frustration for advocates is compounded, Emsellem said, because “we haven’t heard any objections to the substance of the bill.”

The Senate is set to vote tomorrow to begin consideration of the proposal — a procedural move requiring 60 votes to pass. But that’s just be the start of the process. Without an agreement over the amendments, Democratic leaders will have to stage a second cloture vote in order to move to a final vote on the bill. The series of procedural steps could easily push that final vote to the end of the week.

Only the public’s ignorance of the process, some Democrats claim, is preventing a backlash against Republicans. “If the public understood what was holding up this legislation,” Shaheen said, “they would be outraged.”

“And rightly so,” she added.

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