Senate Democrats Look To Extend Jobless Benefits

All but two Republicans, along with one Democrat, have opposed extending long-term unemployment, saying it would add $34 billion to the deficit. But Senate Democrats hope the swearing-in of a replacement for the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd on Tuesday gives them enough momentum to get the extension passed.

Senate Democrats hope the swearing-in of a replacement senator from West Virginia on Tuesday gives them enough momentum to extend long-term unemployment benefits.

West Virginia attorney Carte Goodwin, 36, will become the 59th member of the Senate Democratic caucus when he is sworn in Tuesday as the replacement for the late Sen. Robert Byrd. Goodwin will be the Senate's youngest member, and the vote Democrats need to break a GOP filibuster blocking the extension of long-term unemployment benefits.

All but two Republicans, along with one Democrat, have opposed those benefits, saying they would add $34 billion to the budget deficit.

Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed finds that inconsistent.

"We've been struggling for months to try to pass unemployment compensation and being told you've got to pay for them. And then in the same breath our colleagues say, 'Well, we have to extend the Bush tax cuts, including the estate tax cuts, without paying for them,' " Reed says.

Extending those tax cuts for a decade would cost the Treasury more than $3 trillion.

If the measure passes, millions of people stuck on the jobless rolls would receive an extension of unemployment benefits averaging $309 a week.

Democrats have stripped the unemployment insurance measure down to the bare essentials for Tuesday's expected vote, which is a do-over of a tally taken late last month.

With Goodwin poised to claim Byrd's seat, 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 Obama for his signature.

"I can't tell you how relieved we will be when Congress passes this. We have in Pennsylvania about 200,000 people who have lost their unemployment compensation coverage because of their inaction," said Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry Sandi Vito. "Folks need this money for their mortgages, for food, and so our goal is to get them their payments as quickly as possible."

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.

But first, 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 that 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.

"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-UT). "If we are going to extend unemployment benefits, then let's do it without adding to our record debt."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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