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After Two Months, Senate Passes Unemployment Benefits Extension

Tonight, after waiting 30 hours for a cloture vote, the Senate reauthorized the federal extension of unemployment benefits — moving one step closer to restoring unemployment insurance to 2.6 million American workers. Tomorrow, the bill needs four or five hours of procedural time before a House vote. As soon as the House vote happens, President Obama can sign the bill into law.

The legislation retroactively grants extended benefits — additional weeks of unemployment, tacked on to state benefits where the unemployment rate is higher than 8 percent, and maxing out at 99 weeks — to June 2. (States are overloaded dealing with the backlog of recipients, but expect benefit checks to start rolling out in two weeks or so.) The extension lasts through Nov. 30. It does not create any new benefits, and does not extend the $25-a-week Federal Additional Compensation benefit.

Senate Republicans had held up the extension for more than two months, causing benefits to lapse for approximately 300,000 workers a day nationally. Senate Democrats failed to overcome a GOP filibuster numerous times — first via the tax extenders legislation closing a series of tax loopholes and providing aid to states, and then via a standalone bill.

Ultimately, the dispute came down to dollars. Republicans insisted that the unemployment extension not add to the deficit. Wanting the benefits to have a stimulative effect on the lagging economy, and considering them emergency spending, Democrats wanted to be able to increase the deficit. Ultimately, after the standoff, Democrats won — losing Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in the cloture vote on Tuesday, but gaining Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, as well as Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) temporary replacement, Sen. Carte Goodwin (D).

Today, Democrats repeatedly berated Republicans for holding up the legislation. Once the Senate gained cloture on Tuesday, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) requested that Republicans agree to waive the 30-hour waiting period until a final majority-rules vote, as is customary. Republicans refused.

On the Senate floor, Reid blasted them. “The Republican leadership, supported by the overwhelming majority of its caucus, has stood in front of the burning house and said: Everyone wants us to put out the fire, but we’re going to sit back and wait a while before we turn on the hoses. That is a disgrace that brings shame to this institution. But more than that, it hurts the very people we were sent here to help. Why would someone in public service do such a thing? Why would they be so callous? … I simply don’t know. I am at a loss.”

But Republicans continue to see the fight in terms of the budget. “Hard times require hard decisions,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said on the floor. “What we are seeing is the easy way out.”

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