WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday advanced legislation extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a battle Democrats plan to escalate as part of an election-year focus on income inequality.
The vote was 60-37, with 60 needed, to move forward a measure to restore for three months the emergency jobless benefits that expired Dec. 28 for 1.3 million Americans. Six Republicans and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine joined Democrats to advance the bill, with some saying Congress must cover the $6.4 billion cost.
“I understand how important unemployment insurance is to those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who voted with Democrats, in a statement. She said lawmakers can work to “find the funds that could pay for the extension.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has said any extension of the jobless benefits must contain financing.
Sen. King said, “Emergency unemployment benefits are a critical safety-net for those who have lost their job through no fault of their own and who are continuing to struggle to find work outside of the standard 26-week benefit time frame, which is why I am pleased the Senate advanced the measure today.
“I do, however, remain concerned about the costs associated with an extension of the program and will both look for and be open to proposals to offset those costs. Additionally, I believe Congress must do more to address the underlying causes of persistent unemployment, particularly by supporting job training and education programs that will help the long-term unemployed gain the skills necessary to succeed in a changing labor market.”
Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine said, “Although this is only a procedural vote, I’m hopeful it’s a positive sign. I’m pleased the Senate has agreed to move forward on this issue, and I applaud Senators Collins and King for supporting the measure.”
“Without this critical assistance it can be impossible to put food on the table, make rent, or pay a mortgage. I urge the House and Senate to pass this extension as soon as possible,” said Michaud.
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said that “nearly $1 million is being lost to the Maine economy every week due to the expiration of emergency unemployment benefits last month. More than 3,300 Maine people were getting an average benefit of about $285 a week, which ended suddenly on Dec. 28 when Congress failed to extend the program. That means in the first week alone $940,000 stopped flowing into the Maine economy — and that figure is expected to grow as more individuals see basic benefits expire.
“It was wrong for Congress to leave for Christmas recess without extending emergency unemployment benefits,” Pingree said. “It was wrong to do that in the middle of a cold winter and it was wrong to do that when so many people are still struggling to find work.”
Besides casting the measure as a moral imperative, Democrats are stepping up efforts to demonstrate the economic benefits of restoring the weekly payments to individuals who they say will spend the money on goods and services that create jobs. President Barack Obama emphasized that argument in a speech at the White House Tuesday.
“There’s a whole lot of people who are still struggling,” Obama said. He was joined by a group of 20 people who the administration said were affected by the expiration of the extra benefits. “This is not an abstraction.”
The successful vote was a surprise after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, moments earlier, described himself as “sad” because “we can’t get Republicans to join us.”
Besides Collins, Senate Republicans who supported advancing the measure were Dan Coats of Indiana, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Dean Heller of Nevada and Rob Portman of Ohio.
“It was in the balance until the very last moment,” said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “Yeah, I was surprised.”
“It is unprecedented for the Congress to allow emergency unemployment benefits to expire at a time when long-term unemployment is as high as it is today,” according to a statement from the White House on Monday. The nationwide jobless rate for November was 7 percent.
Many Republicans say the program is a disincentive for the unemployed to secure long-term employment and that it feeds a culture of dependency.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his party would support additional jobless benefits “if we could find a way to extend them without actually adding to the national debt.” He proposed paying for the extended aid by delaying for a year the health-care law’s requirement that most individuals obtain insurance, something Reid said he adamantly opposes.
McConnell faulted the economy during the sixth year of Obama’s administration, saying “record numbers” of poor and working-class people “have been having a perfectly terrible time.”
Before the vote, Democratic leaders including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said the bill was part of a broader income-inequality agenda they are rolling out before the November midterm election. The party also will focus on raising the minimum wage and boosting federal spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs.
Democrats are seeking to help workers weather the longest period of high national unemployment since the Great Depression, and if they fail, to put Republicans on defense before the election.
For every dollar the U.S. government spends on unemployment insurance, $1.55 returns to the gross domestic product, said Reid, citing an analysis by Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.
Last week, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released a state-by-state analysis of the effect of lost unemployment dollars that feed local economies. In Illinois, almost 82,000 people lost an average $313 weekly benefit for a total statewide effect of $25 million. Ohio lost about $12 million in one week, and the total estimated effects in all states combined was $408 million.
Some Republicans say renewing the benefits fails to address how to create jobs. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who often works with Democrats on legislation, said he could compromise on a short-term extension as long as Democrats pair it with job-creation measures.
“I don’t want to have this permanent state of unemployment insurance where we end up like Europe,” King said on CBS’ “Face the Nation Program” on Jan. 5.
The Heritage Foundation, a Republican-aligned group that supports free markets and opposes the extended benefits, said the previous extension to 99 weeks as part of an economic stimulus program increased the national unemployment rate by 0.5 percentage point. Each 13-week extension of benefits increases the average length of time a worker stays unemployed by approximately one week, the group said.
House leaders don’t currently plan to hold a vote on extending the expanded jobless benefits. Boehner of Ohio told reporters in December he’d “look at” any White House plan to extend unemployment insurance, though he hadn’t seen a plan to pay for it.
Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer said House Democrats think such aid is emergency spending for the jobless, though if Republicans want it offset by cuts elsewhere Democrats will consider where those cuts would be made.
Democrats say they’ve offered proposals for the spending cuts Republicans demand. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, proposed an amendment before Congress left for the holidays to pay for the plan with cuts to agricultural subsidies.
Following a two-year budget deal reached in December, both parties are focusing their campaign messages on the U.S. economy’s struggles and how to help workers.
Republicans plan to take aim at the president’s health-care law and federal regulations they say hamper job growth.
Groups that support Republican lawmakers and oppose extended jobless benefits, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, said they plan to include the vote in their ranking of lawmakers’ records.
The extended unemployment program started in 2008 and at one point provided as many as 99 weeks of benefits. At the end of 2013 the maximum was 73 weeks, including 26 weeks of state-funded benefits.
The emergency benefits have been renewed 11 times since President George W. Bush put them in place in 2008, when the U.S. jobless rate was 5.6 percent. All extended benefits are covered by federal dollars, while initial jobless insurance comes from federal, state and employer funds.
Democrats maintain that unemployment insurance has been routinely extended by Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses during periods of high unemployment.
With assistance from Margaret Talev, Michael C. Bender, Kathleen Hunter and Derek Wallbank in Washington.