WASHINGTON – The Senate opened the door to reviving an expired unemployment compensation program on Tuesday, opting to avoid a potential Republican filibuster and avoid what one lawmaker likened to pushing those out of work “off an economic cliff.”
The 60-37 procedural vote that permits the upper chamber to consider the extension came as something of a surprise. In his remarks before the tally, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, indicated that he thought supporters would likely pull up just short of the 60 needed to break a looming GOP roadblock.
But those concerns were lifted when Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who earlier expressed opposition to the bill in its current form, voted to proceed to debate, maintaining the Senate “should have the opportunity to debate and improve this important legislation.”
“The unemployment insurance benefits program needs to be reformed to ensure that it works better for those truly in need and connects those who are unemployed with available jobs,” said Coats, who said he will vote against the bill if changes aren’t rendered. “Additionally, Congress cannot continue to rack up more debt and pass the bill along to our children. Any further extension of this program should be paid for and I am working on offering amendments that both would offset this cost and help put Americans back to work.”
Six Republicans voted in support of consideration – Coats, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), and Rob Portman (Ohio) – handing Reid and the entire Democratic caucus just enough support to bring it to the floor.
Should it pass the Senate later this week as expected, the bill will move to the House where its future is less clear. House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, said the lower chamber will only pass unemployment legislation that contains spending cuts in other government programs to offset the estimated $6.55 billion cost.
“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,” Boehner said. “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 legislation extends the temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which was initiated in 2008 during the height of the financial crisis, by another 47 weeks. The emergency measure opened the door to extending the time limit for the long-term unemployed to collect benefits.
But the extension expired at the onset of 2014 when Republicans opposed its inclusion in the bipartisan budget bill intended to keep the federal government running for two more years. That left 1.3 million out of work without benefits. Another 1.9 million won’t have access to the emergency program during the first six months of next year. If Congress does not renew the law, those out of work who file for unemployment benefits in 2014 will only qualify for state benefits, which last a maximum of 26 weeks. Reports show that the average unemployed person is out of work and searching for a new job for 36 weeks.
The federal government reports that 36 percent of those unemployed have been out of work for more than six months and the economy still has 1.5 million fewer jobs than before the 2008 recession.
According to the House Ways and Means Committee, the most recent Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was in place longer (66 months), was extended more times (12), aided more people (24 million), cost more than $265 billion, and added more to the national debt ($210 billion) than any previous program.
During debate on the cloture motion that leads to a final vote on the package sometime later this week, Reid charged that Republicans had “callously turned their backs on the long-term unemployed” and asserted that every dollar provided unemployed workers under the program grows the national economy by $1.50 as a result of increased commerce.
In the past, Reid said, the Senate has always “put politics aside and put America first” when it came to supporting those who find themselves out of work.
“Republicans need to take this as serious as we do,” Reid said.