WASHINGTON (AP) - Legislation to restore unemployment benefits to millions whohave been out of work for more than six months broke free of SenateRepublican delaying tactics on Tuesday.
Senators voted 60-40 to move ahead on the bill, clearing the wayfor a final Senate vote later on Tuesday. The measure would restorejobless checks for 2.5 million people whose benefits startedrunning out seven weeks ago in a stubbornly jobless economicrecovery.
The vote was a modest victory for President Barack Obama andDemocrats, whose more ambitious hopes for a jobs agenda have mostlyfizzled in the face of GOP opposition in the Senate. A battle hasraged for months over whether jobless benefits should be financedwith additional federal debt as Democrats want or through cuts toother government programs as most Republicans insist.
The vote came moments after Carte Goodwin was sworn in as asuccessor to West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who died lastmonth at the age of 92. Goodwin was the crucial 60th senator todefeat a Republican filibuster that has led to a lapse in benefitsfor 2.5 million people. The Senate gallery was packed with Goodwinsupporters, who broke into applause as he cast his "aye" vote.
Two Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, votedto end the filibuster. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democratto break with his party and vote to sustain it.
After a final Senate vote, the House is expected to approve thelegislation and send it to President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
The measure would be the eighth extension of unemploymentbenefits since July 2008, at a total cost to taxpayers of more than$120 billion. The economy added 882,000 jobs so far this year— but many of those were only temporary positions as thefederal government geared up to conduct the U.S. Census.
Economists said it will take at least until the middle of thisdecade to recoup those losses and drive down the nation'sunemployment rate, now at 9.5 percent, to a more normal 5.5 percentor 6 percent.
About 2.5 million people would receive jobless benefitsretroactively, injecting almost $3 billion into the economy oncethey're paid out. Millions of others will continue to receivepayments that would help prop up consumer demand to the tune ofabout $30 billion more over the coming year.
"This bill is about jobs because unemployment insurance goes topeople who will spend it immediately," said Sen. Max Baucus,D-Mont. "That would increase economic demand. And that would helpsupport our fragile economic recovery."
But Republicans say that while they support the benefitsextension it should be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the $3.7trillion federal budget.
"We've repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And weare ready to support one now," said Senate Minority Leader MitchMcConnell, R-Ky. "What we do not support — and we make noapologies for — is borrowing tens of billions of dollars topass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinningcompletely out of control."
Democrats tout the economy-boosting effect of unemploymentchecks since most beneficiaries spend them immediately. But thenumbers amount to less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the size ofthe $14.6 trillion economy, and are far smaller than last year's$862 billion stimulus legislation. Republicans have blockedDemocratic add-ons, such as aid to state governments, that couldhave meant a greater economic boost.
"It's too small to have any noticeable impact on the economy'sgrowth rate," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff EconomicAdvisors. "But the benefits do provide an important safety net forpeople during these difficult economic times."
The measure would extend benefits averaging $309 a week throughthe end of November. Maximum benefits in some states are farhigher; in Massachusetts, the top benefit is $943 a week. InMississippi, the top benefit is just $235.
The White House signaled Monday that the administration may seekanother renewal of benefits in November if unemployment remainspainfully high.
After initially feeling heat this winter when a lone GOPsenator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, briefly blocked a benefitsextension in February, the GOP has grown increasingly comfortableopposing the legislation.
Associated Press writer Jeannine Aversa contributed to thisreport.
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