Monday, April 5, 2010
Nearly 400,000 jobless Americans are going to see their long-term unemployment benefits cut off after Congress failed to pass a short-term extension before taking a two-week break.
Members of the House already had voted to extend jobless benefits and went home for the spring break. Everyone knew those benefits would be running out Monday should the Senate fail to act.
On the Senate's last day in session, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin pleaded with his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor: "Let's have a little heart. Let's have a little compassion. Let's have a little understanding of what these people are going through every day in their lives, the stress that they have. Let's do the right thing, and extend the unemployment benefits for one month."
Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn objected. He said he was all for extending unemployment benefits as long as they were paid for, which they were not in the measure the House passed.
Coburn's objection meant Democrats would have to muster 60 votes and spend days more debating to get past his opposition. "Whether you call it filibuster, whether you call it obstruction, as a grandfather of five children that is truly reflective of tons of grandparents out there and tons of grandkids out there, I'm not gonna agree," he said.
There was similar GOP opposition to last month's extension of unemployment benefits when it came up in the Senate.
Then, it was Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning who led the fight. But many fellow Republicans did not seem to have the stomach to back up Bunning and help block 30 days worth of unemployment checks.
Jon Kyl, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, voted for that extension. Since then, though, Kyl and other Republicans apparently have concluded that joining the pay-for-it cause is good politics.
"It took an act of courage like Senator Bunning's to perhaps jolt people into the awareness of just how bad it had really gotten," Kyl said. "After we reflected on the fact that we didn't give him as much help as we probably should have, that we wanted to do it in a concerted way that could be successful next time."
So one after another, Republicans trooped to the Senate floor and backed up Coburn's demand that extended unemployment benefits not increase the deficit.
"It is an issue that we have got to get under control, and now is the time to do it," said Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss. Like Kyl, he voted last month to extend unemployment benefits.
"If we can't find a way to pay for $9 billion worth of expenses, then it's Katy, bar the door," Chambliss said.
Democrats agree with Republicans that deficit spending poses a huge problem. But they argue that all three times unemployment benefits have been extended in the past two years, it's been considered emergency spending and not subject to budget rules requiring that funds be found to pay for it.
Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow complained of being lectured to about fiscal responsibility; after all, she said, the last time the budget was balanced and the treasury built up a big surplus was under President Clinton.
"Under President Bush, under the Republican Congress, that went away pretty fast," Stabenow said. "By not paying for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, somehow, that was OK."
In fact, none of the Bush tax cuts were paid for, and all of them expire at the end of this year. Still, Democrats plan to extend those for incomes up to a $250,000 a year.
Nothing is being done to make up for the $1.3 trillion that will mean in lost revenues, but that doesn't bother Kyl. He says tax cuts should be extended for those in the top income bracket as well.
"The money belongs to them," Kyl said. "If we want to extract less from them in the future, we shouldn't have to somehow make that up by finding another way to tax them to 'make it up for Washington.' "
"It's nonsense to argue that you should pay for all new spending, but not for tax cuts," said Maya MacGuineas, who heads the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She says fiscal rectitude is invoked by most lawmakers when it's politically convenient.
"The sort of Alice in Wonderland feeling to this debate is that everybody says the debt is a real and growing problem, except when it's the result of policies that they want," MacGuineas added.
And it's not limited to taxes.
Chambliss, who warned of deficit spending on the Senate floor, is seeking more than $250,000 million worth of earmarks for his state.
"Earmarks are less than 1 percent of the overall budget, and the number is insignificant with respect to the deficit number," Chambliss said.
A week from now, the Senate reconvenes, and its first order of business is a vote to try to break Coburn's filibuster of the unemployment benefits.