Millions of people stuck on the jobless rolls would receive an extension of unemployment benefits averaging $309 a week under a Senate bill that appears set to break free of a Republican filibuster.
Democrats have stripped the unemployment insurance measure down to the bare essentials for Tuesday's vote, which is a do-over of a tally taken late last month.
With West Virginia Democrat Carte Goodwin poised to claim the seat of the late Robert Byrd, two Republicans will be needed to vault the measure over the filibuster hurdle. Maine GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are expected to provide the key votes to create a filibuster-breaking tally on a key procedural test.
The measure is expected to pass later Tuesday. The House would take it up Wednesday and then send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
If all goes as expected, about 2.5 million people will receive jobless benefits retroactively, injecting almost $3 billion into the economy once they're paid out. Instead of being dropped from a federal program that extends benefits for those whose six months of state-paid benefits have run out, millions of others will continue to receive payments that would help prop up consumer demand to the tune of about $30 billion more over the coming year.
Democrats tout the economy-boosting effect of unemployment checks since most beneficiaries spend them immediately. But the numbers amount to less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the size of the $14.6 trillion economy, and are far smaller than last year's $862 billion stimulus legislation. Republicans have blocked Democratic add-ons, such as aid to state governments, that could have meant a greater economic boost.
"It's too small to have any noticeable impact on the economy's growth rate," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. "But the benefits do provide an important safety net for people during these difficult economic times."
Obama and his Democratic allies are pressing the issue for maximum political advantage, blaming Republicans for the impasse that halted unemployment checks for people unable to find work as the jobless rate remains close to 10 percent.
Obama launched a fresh salvo Monday, demanding the Senate act on the legislation — after a vote already had been scheduled — 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 they be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere in the government's $3.7 trillion budget. After initially feeling heat this winter when a lone GOP senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, briefly blocked a benefits extension in February, the GOP has grown increasingly comfortable opposing the legislation.
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.
"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."
But with conservative voters and tea party activists up in arms about the deficit, conservative Republicans have adopted a harder line that has caused three interruptions of jobless benefits.
"We've repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And we are ready to support one now," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday. "What we do not support — and we make no apologies for — is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control."
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