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Sens. Reed and Brown Lament GOP Obstruction on Unemployment Benefits Extension

Tomorrow, the federal extension of unemployment benefits held up for two months in the Senate should pass. On a call with reporters this afternoon, Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) lauded the extension but bashed Republicans for holding up the bill and causing the loss of benefits for 2.5 million Americans. Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, also participated in the call, explaining the economics of the unemployment insurance extension.

Reed stressed the importance of having Carte Goodwin sworn in as Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) replacement. (Byrd passed away at the end of June at the age of 92, and Goodwin will provide Senate Democrats with the crucial 60th vote for cloture.) “Tomorrow, after our new colleague from West Virginia is sworn in, we will have an opportunity to vote for a bill to extend a lifeline to millions of Americans,” he said, noting, “Historically, even under [the presidency of] George W. Bush, extending unemployment insurance was a bipartisan endeavor. Congress never declined to do so” with joblessness above 7 percent.

Reed also argued that Republicans have “cavalierly dismissed [the need to offset] tax cuts for the wealthy” while insisting on paying for unemployment benefits. “We’ve got to be able to provide for people who have worked their whole life,” he said, so that Democrats can “get on with the business of creating jobs.”

Brown noted that he has gone to the Senate floor virtually every day to read letters sent to him by unemployed constituents. And he and Mishel stressed that unemployment is not just good policy for families, but good for the economy. “We are now in the midst of just really a catastrophic situation,” Mishel said, “where we have had rising unemployment for three and a half years. That is the steepest rise since the Great Depression.”

Mishel argued that unemployment benefits, by fostering additional economic activity, will support 800,000 for the rest of the year. And because unemployment insurance is so stimulative, he said it usually ends up costing the government only about 40 percent of the sticker price.

Both Reed and Brown pushed back on the suggestion that Democrats could have pushed unemployment benefits through faster, had they only passed them separately rather than as part of the extenders package. (For a complete history of how Congress has struggled to pass unemployment insurance for the past year, see here.)

Brown argued, “We tried to [pass a more long-term, standalone extension]. And we weren’t getting any Republicans. I think there were some Republicans who wanted to vote for it, but didn’t because [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell was putting so much pressure on it.”

Reed agreed. “Every time we’ve tried to get unemployment compensation through it’s been a struggle.” He said that the Senate used to “routinely” pass longer-term extensions, with bipartisan support and relative ease. This time, he noted, Republicans forced Senate Democrats to hold three or four cloture votes, and to winnow the time frame down. “We’d finish one extension, and we’d immediately have to start the other one,” Reed said. “We’ve had separate votes on unemployment insurance that have taken repeated weeks — weeks! — to get through. This has been flying in the face of the legitimate need” for benefits.

Reed also lauded Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, for continuing to seek Republican votes. “He does a remarkable job of trying to reach consensus and compromise. This isn’t take it or leave it.”

Correction: The headline of this post initially stated that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was on the call with Reed; in reality, it was Sen. Sherrod Brown. We regret the error.

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