WASHINGTON, April 12, 2010 -- It may end up taking them 20 days to do it, but Democrats in the Senate are now on track to extend unemployment benefits for 30 days.
Senators voted 60-34 today to consider a 30-day extension of unemployment benefits and COBRA subsidies for people long out of work. By the time the bill likely passes later this week, Congress will already have to start considering what to do when the temporary extension runs out May 5.
Benefits for 200,000 long-unemployed Americans expired on April 5, according to some estimates and that number could reach more than a million by the end of the month.
But a partisan fight over how to scrape together the $10 billion needed snarled Congress just before Easter and lawmakers left for a two-week break. The vote today essentially breaks the filibuster of most Republicans, who had blocked the bill because they disagree with deficit spending.
Democrats, by and large, have argued that the economic crisis justifies the deficit spending to help the unemployed.
"To them, it doesn't matter than these people lost their jobs through no fault of their own -- or that they're desperate to find a new full-time job -- or that this is an emergency not only for their families, but for our country," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a speech antagonizing Republicans on the Senate floor.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has taken up the mantle of fiscal responsibility, said Republicans want to extend the benefits, but they say it is not worth borrowing money and adding to the federal credit card.
"We all think Americans in need of financial assistance are worth those $9 billion in costs," Coburn said. But he added that in Congress, "We're in the habit of not making hard choices. We're in the habit of doing the least best thing for our future."
Republicans take great pains to make the case that they support extending benefits for people long out of work -- it is Americans receiving benefits for nearly two years who are being hit by this lapse.
"It's not a question of extending unemployment benefits. It's a question of who pays for it," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, who is in charge of counting votes for Republicans.
Back in march, only Bunning insisted on a cloture vote for the temporary extension. But public outcry and lack of support from other Republicans ultimately led him to allow the bill to pass without requiring 60 votes.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass, one of four Republicans to vote with Democrats today, said in a statement he may vote for the bill later in the week if the bill does not change, but said that voting with Democrats today is a way to help improve the tone in Washington.
"I have pledged to do my best to change the tone in Washington, and my vote to continue the debate rather than obstruct it serves as a step in that direction," he said in a paper statement.
In the meantime, Republicans have seized on public discontent with the snowballing federal deficit, demanding that money be taken from the $838 billion stimulus bill passed in 2009.
"Democrats can no longer hide behind the argument of good intentions when the results threaten our stability as a nation," Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said today.
But Democrats in the Senate rejected the approach because the stimulus programs are meant to create jobs in construction and elsewhere.
"They want to pay for this by taking the money out of programs that we're going to use to put people to work, taking the money away from projects that are going to be built across America to put construction workers back to work," Durbin said.
The tone has become more heated among Democrats frustrated with Republicans complaining about deficit spending.
"I'm getting a little tired of being preached to by the other side of the aisle about fiscal conservatism," Durbin said today. "It was their president, the last president [George W. Bush], who more than doubled the national debt in this country from $5 trillion to $12 trillion."
He did not mention that with the stimulus, the debt has grown even more under President Obama.
Proposals to extend unemployment benefits through 2010 passed both houses of Congress this year, but in different forms. Democrats in the House and Senate have not been able to agree on how to blend the two.
Senate Democrats decided to leave Washington in part because House Democrats had already gone. Even if they had remained in town at the end of last month, they could not have altered the extension bill until the rest of Congress had returned to work.