Jobless Benefits Extension Clears Senate Hurdle

Jobless Benefits Extension Clears Senate Hurdle
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A short-term extension of jobless benefits cleared a Senate hurdle Tuesday, advancing legislation on what figures to be a key issue in the 2014 midterm elections.

Six Republicans joined Democrats to support cloture -- opening the bill up for debate -- by a 60-37 vote. Three senators (Republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah and John Thune of South Dakota and Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska) were absent due to travel complications caused by severe winter weather.

The motion, sponsored by Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, marked a significant and somewhat surprising victory, as the bill appeared doomed only hours earlier with the needed GOP yeas uncertain. But the measure still faces another procedural hurdle this week before final passage, and some Republicans who agreed to cloture want to see cost offsets and other conditions for the roughly $6 billion, three-month extension of the program.

If the measure does pass the Senate, its fate is uncertain in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers have shown little appetite for extending the program begun during the recession of 2008.

“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” House Speaker John Boehner said after the Senate vote. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”

The federal unemployment compensation, intended to pick up when state benefits expire, ran out at the end of December. Lawmakers have been gridlocked over whether to continue the program, with party-line differences over economic benefits and additions to the deficit. Public polling has signaled support for extending the program for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, and Democrats are hoping to push this as a defining midterm issue.

Prior to the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of exploiting the unemployed for political gain “instead of working on reforms that would actually help people overcome the challenges so many of them face in this economy.” McConnell floated a benefits extension offset by delaying the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act for a year, but Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed the idea. The floor debate between the two leaders previewed midterm election themes involving income inequality and health care.

Still, some Republicans feeling the unemployment pinch in their states agreed to open up the bill for debate.

“You have some people out there who have legitimately tried to find work and don’t know what to do,” Indiana Republican Dan Coats told reporters outside the Senate chamber after casting his affirmative vote. Coats’ home state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. “It’s one of those issues that goes directly to people who are hurting,” he said.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski expressed similar sentiments. But both lawmakers say their final votes are conditioned upon amendments to the bill, which aren’t guaranteed. In addition to financial offsets, Coats wants to see the final bill include reforms to the unemployment insurance program “so that those who are taking advantage of this are not eligible.”

Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire joined Heller, Coats and Murkowski in backing cloture. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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