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Senate Overcomes Key Obstacle to Unemployment Benefits Extension


People in line for a job fair in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (Michael Francis McElroy/ZUMA Press)

This afternoon, the Senate cleared a crucial hurdle to reauthorizing the federal extension of unemployment benefits, held up in the Senate for an unprecedented two months. The upper chamber voted down a filibuster of H.R. 4213, also known as the jobs bill or the extenders package — the vehicle for a $34 billion extension of jobless benefits, retroactive to June 2, when they lapsed, and continuing through the end of November.

[Economy1] The cloture vote took place immediately following the swearing-in of Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.), the temporary replacement for Sen. Robert Byrd, who passed away at the end of June at the age of 92. Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (Maine) joined 58 members of the Democratic caucus — every member save for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — in voting to end debate on the bill. All other Republicans opposed. The final vote was 60 to 40.

The bill now moves to a majority-rules vote on the actual legislation. Democrats hope to pass that today, though Republicans could object and force the majority party to wait 30 hours to vote. After that, the bill returns to the House, where the Democratic leadership plans to pass it as quickly as possible. (The Senate is not voting on H.R. 5618, the House’s standalone version, opting instead to hold a new vote on a failed Senate bill in order to bypass an additional procedural roadblock.) President Obama could sign the bill as early as Wednesday evening, barring procedural hold-ups, and states could begin the process of disbursing the benefits as early as Thursday morning.

The bill does not include an extension of the $25-a-week Federal Additional Compensation funds, tacked onto many unemployment checks. It also does not include any of the other provisions originally included in or proposed for the jobs bill or extenders package: It does not close tax loopholes, or provide Medicaid funding to states, or include funds to keep teachers and other state employees working. It also does not create an additional fifth tier of benefits; federal extensions only continue in states with higher than an 8 percent unemployment rate, and the maximum weeks of state and federal benefits remains ninety-nine.

Nevertheless, the unemployment extension comes as a desperately needed lifeline to 2.5 million American families. “When millions of Americans lost their jobs, they didn’t just lose a place to go to work in the morning,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor on Monday. “They lost their incomes, their savings and their retirement security. They lost their tuition payments. Many lost their homes. They lost their gas money and their grocery money. All of this through no fault of their own. I’m not talking about just a handful of people in an isolated corner of the country. I’m talking about millions of Americans from every one of our states.”

Additionally, economists expect the unemployment benefits extension to have a strong stimulative impact on the economy, as the recovery lags and a growing band of experts calls for more government spending to keep up demand. Lawrence Mishel, the head of the Economic Policy Institute, estimates that the unemployment benefits extension will support 800,000 jobs over the remainder of the year — as the unemployed generally spend their unemployment benefits immediately, rather than using them to pay down debt or to keep as savings. Unemployment benefits usually end up costing the government only about 40 percent of the sticker price, Mishel said on a call with reporters on Monday. “[Passing the unemployment extension] is not only a decent thing to do. It’s one of the most stimulative things you can do to create jobs,” he noted.

But Republicans have argued that unemployment benefits should no longer be considered emergency spending, in which case they would not be allowed to raise the deficit. “We’ve offered ways of paying for these programs, and we’ve been eager to approve them,” argued Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “But we can’t support job-killing taxes and adding tens of billions to the already unsustainable national debt. So the only reason the unemployment extension hasn’t passed is because Democrats simply refuse to pass a bill that doesn’t add to the debt. That’s it. That’s the only difference between what they’ve offered and what we’ve offered.” A number of Republican senators — including McConnell and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — introduced unemployment bills with offsets.

Over the weekend, President Obama joined the Democratic caucus in hitting at Republicans for blocking the benefits for so long. Never in U.S. history have extended benefits been allowed to expire with unemployment over 7 percent. He devoted his Saturday radio address the topic. And, speaking in the Rose Garden on Monday, flanked by three unemployed Americans, Obama said: “[Republicans] say we shouldn’t provide unemployment insurance because it costs money. So after years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, including a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, they’ve finally decided to make their stand on the backs of the unemployed. They’ve got no problem spending money on tax breaks for folks at the top who don’t need them and didn’t even ask for them; but they object to helping folks laid off in this recession who really do need help.”

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