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Senate Clears Way For Extension Of Jobless Benefits

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with reporters Tuesday after the Senate cleared a hurdle to restore unemployment benefits to millions of Americans who have been out of work for more than six months.
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks with reporters Tuesday after the Senate cleared a hurdle to restore unemployment benefits to millions of Americans who have been out of work for more than six months.

A bill to restore unemployment benefits to millions who have been out of work for more than six months has cleared a Senate hurdle.

The 60-40 vote came moments after Carte Goodwin, a successor to West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, was sworn in. Goodwin was the crucial 60th senator to defeat a Republican filibuster that has led to a lapse in benefits for 2.5 million people.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thanked Goodwin for his vote.

"I know he's glad that his first vote in the United States Senate was for this urgent, important national issue," Reid said.

It would cost the Treasury nearly $34 billion to extend unemployment insurance until the end of November for the millions of Americans who've been out of work more than half a year. Because that would add to the deficit, all but two Senate Republicans opposed the measure, along with one Democrat. That left the majority party one vote short of the 60 needed to break the GOP filibuster -- until Goodwin was sworn in.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell, for his part, said it was wrong to add billions to the deficit by extending the jobless benefits.

"If Republicans have done anything wrong in this debate, it was to underestimate how committed Democrats are to spending money we don't have," he said.

A battle has raged for months over whether jobless benefits should be financed with additional federal debt as Democrats want, or through cuts to other government programs as most Republicans insist.

After a final Senate vote, the House will take up the bill Wednesday. President Obama is likely to sign it into law by week's end.

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

The measure would reauthorize the extended benefits program through the end of November, providing payments to millions of people who've been out of work for six months or more. Maximum benefits in some states are far higher than the $309 a week nationwide average payment. In Massachusetts, the top benefit is $943 a week; in Mississippi, it is $235.

Obama and his Democratic allies blamed 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, 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 said they do favor the benefits but had insisted 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."

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