With a new face and a 60th vote for breaking a Republican filibuster, Senate Democrats are preparing to restore jobless checks for 2.5 million people whose benefits ran out during a congressional standoff over deficit spending. President Barack Obama says, "It's time to do what's right."
But first, Obama and his Democratic allies are pressing for maximum political advantage, blaming Republicans for an impasse that halted unemployment checks averaging $309 a week for those whose eligibility had expired.
Obama launched a fresh salvo on Monday, demanding that the Senate act on the legislation — after a vote already had been scheduled for Tuesday — and blasting Republicans for the holdup.
"The same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle-class Americans," Obama said.
Republicans say they do favor the benefits but are insisting that they be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere in the government's $3.7 trillion budget. After initially feeling heat when a lone GOP senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, briefly blocked a benefits extension back in February, the GOP has grown increasingly comfortable in opposing the legislation.
"What the president isn't telling the American people is that many of us in the Senate are fighting to make sure our children and grandchildren aren't buried under a mountain of debt," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "If we are going to extend unemployment benefits, then let's do it without adding to our record debt."
Tuesday's Senate voting — with Democratic newcomer Carte Goodwin of West Virginia being sworn in just in time to cast the 60th vote to break a GOP filibuster — will cap a battle of more than four months that's featured bad blood and a shift in sentiment among key Republicans.
Though the economy is said to be slowly recovering, the jobless rate remains painfully high at 9.5 percent. And Obama, putting a human face on those hard times, brought three unemployed people to the Rose Garden with him on Monday.
An increasing number of people, however, have been out of work for so long that they have exhausted their eligibility for benefits, which ends at 99 weeks in most states. This measure won't help them.
In Bellevue, Wash., for example, unemployment benefits ran out last week for 63-year-old Sherry Blum. She's been job hunting since August 2008. Already behind on her mortgage, the loss of her weekly benefits means she will have to sell her town house.
"Unemployment (benefits) helped me stay just above water," she said. Blum plans to sell her town house, with its $1,600 monthly mortgage, and move into a small apartment. But with the housing market still ailing, that could take time. Three other homeowners in her development have taken their homes off the market recently after failing to sell them.
"Hopefully my house will sell before it goes into foreclosure," she said.
The Senate is likely to pass the current measure late Tuesday. The House is expected to clear it for Obama's signature as soon as Wednesday.
Two Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, are expected to vote with the Democrats Tuesday, as they did at the end of June. The measure stalled then because the death of Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and the participation in the filibuster of Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson left the party one short of the 60 votes needed.
With Goodwin, the Senate breakdown is 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans and two independents who normally vote with the Democrats.
Some 2.5 million people have seen their weekly checks interrupted since an earlier extension of the jobless aid program expired June 2. States are responsible for the first 26 weeks of benefits, but the federal government stepped in last year to fully fund up to 73 additional weeks of benefits under the terms of last year's economic stimulus bill.
There are now 14.6 million unemployed people in the U.S., and more than 9.2 million of them are collecting some form of jobless insurance, including 4.9 million — more than half — receiving the federal extensions.
The impasse hasn't affected the 4.3 million or so who have been collecting their first six months of state-paid benefits; but someone whose state benefits have run since June 2 hasn't been eligible for the next 20 weeks worth of benefits while others in the program can't qualify for three additional "tiers" of benefits after that.
People who lost their benefits because of Congress' inaction will be able to receive them retroactively. But that could prove cumbersome as people flood state offices to re-apply for benefits and as states grapple with questions such as requirements that jobless people detail the steps they're taking to find work.
The providing of additional weeks of jobless benefits in the midst of bad times has been regarded as routine, and the latest cycle of additional benefits began in 2008, the last year of George W. Bush's administration. But with conservative voters and tea party activists up in arms about the deficit, conservative Republicans have adopted a harder line that has three times caused interruptions of jobless benefits and other programs.
"For a long time, there has been a tradition under both Democratic and Republican presidents to offer relief to the unemployed," Obama said. "That was certainly the case under my predecessor, when Republicans several times voted to extend emergency unemployment benefits."
Democrats note that the GOP is far more concerned about the $33 billion impact of the jobless benefits on the deficit than the far larger cost of extending Bush-era tax cuts.
But Democrats share some of the blame for the holdup. For most of the debate, Democrats paired the jobless benefits extension with a variety of unfinished congressional business such as expired tax breaks, help for doctors facing a cut in their Medicare payments and help for cash-starved state governments.
Those Democratic add-ons have delayed passage of the measure and were directly responsible for a successful GOP filibuster in mid-June. After a stripped-down bill was introduced, Snowe and Collins rallied behind the measure.
Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia, Wash.
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