Boosted by the swearing-in of new West Virginia Sen. Carte Goodwin, the Senate today voted to restore and extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, ending a lengthy stalemate.
By a vote of 60-40 the Senate succeeded in passing the jobless aid measure just minutes after Goodwin formally became a member of the Senate. Democratic Senators in the chamber erupted in applause when Goodwin cast the decisive vote.
For weeks the Senate had been locked in a standoff on helping the nation's jobless, with both parties supporting an extension of the benefits but disagreeing on how to pay for them. Democrats argued that helping 2.5 million unemployed Americans is an emergency as the country rebounds from recession, but Republicans balked at the bill's $34 billion price tag, contending that adding tens of billions of dollars to the government's soaring deficit is fiscally irresponsible.
Republicans failed on four occasions to offset the cost of the bill with funds from the government's massive stimulus program, while Democrats struck out five times in their attempts to pass the measure. Two Republicans -- Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- today sided with Democrats, while Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson backed the GOP's approach.
But with Goodwin's swearing-in on Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats finally had the votes they needed to pass the long-sought extension. The jobless aid bill still has to be passed by the House of Representatives, but that is expected to happen later this week.
Earlier this week President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both blasted Republicans for blocking the jobless help.
"Many on the other side don't see this as an emergency," Reid said on the Senate floor Monday. "They look at a crisis for families' budgets and see an opportunity for their political fortunes. They think when unemployment goes up, so do their poll numbers."
With 2.5 million people now affected by the lapse in jobless benefits 49 days ago, Reid argued that it was long overdue for the Senate stalemate to end.
"The twisted logic we've seen in the unemployment debate isn't just appalling or heartless, though it is certainly both of those things. It's also factually wrong," Reid said, citing GOP claims that the benefits can become a disincentive for people to find work.
"It's time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics. It's time to do what's right, not for the next election, but for the middle class," President Obama said in the Rose Garden. "We've got to stop blocking emergency relief for Americans who are out of work. We've got to extend unemployment insurance."
But the top Senate Republican countered that it was Democrats who were playing political games at the expense of unemployed Americans.
"Unfortunately the president has decided to turn this debate into a political exercise," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday. "He knew that today's vote had already been scheduled days before…he also knew it would pass, but he intentionally implied otherwise."
"Republicans support extending benefits for the unemployed. We're ready to support one now," McConnell said. "What we do not support – and we make no apologies for this – is borrowing tens of billions of dollars at a time when the national debt is spinning out of control."
Despite the GOP's vociferous objections, Senate Democrats ultimately succeeded in overcoming the lengthy filibuster.
The bill restores jobless benefits retroactive to June 2 and extends eligibility through the end of November, providing up to 99 weekly unemployment checks -- at an average of $335 each -- to people who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state-paid benefits.
"Finally, finally, finally," Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said today. "In my mind it's like having a treaty with the American people. We don't violate treaties and we shouldn't violate social contracts but no, no, no, not our Senate. We had to dilly-dally around for months after months because of the procedural objections of the other side."