WASHINGTON – The Senate voted 59-38 Monday to resurrect federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and a small band of Republican supporters swiftly appealed to a reluctant Speaker John Boehner to permit election-year action in the House as well.
Steps are needed "to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans," seven House Republicans wrote Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. They released their letter as the Senate was bestowing its widely expected approval on the legislation.
Despite the appeal, the bill's prospects are cloudy at best, given widespread opposition among conservative lawmakers and outside groups and Boehner's unwillingness to allow it to the floor without changes that Republicans say would enhance job creation.
The Senate vote itself, seven months before congressional elections, capped a bruising three-month struggle. Fifty-one Democrats, two independents and six Republicans voted for approval.
The bill was the first major piece of legislation that Democrats sent to the floor of the Senate when Congress convened early in the year, the linchpin of a broader campaign-season agenda meant to showcase concern for men and women who are doing poorly in an era of economic disparity between rich and poor.
In the months since, the Democrats have alternately pummeled Republicans for holding up passage and made concessions in an effort to gain support from enough GOP lawmakers to overcome a filibuster. Chief among those concessions was an agreement to pay the $9.6 billion cost of the five-month bill by making offsetting spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The White House-backed measure would retroactively restore benefits that were cut off in late December, and maintain them through the end of May. Officials say as many as 2.7 million jobless workers have been denied assistance since the law expired late last year. If renewed, the aid would total about $256 weekly, and in most cases go to men and women who have been off the job for longer than six months.
Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., the bill's leading supporters, said they were willing to consider changes in hopes of securing passage in a highly reluctant House.
Heller also said he was seeking a meeting with Boehner to discuss the measure.
In their letter to Boehner, seven House Republicans wrote that since the program expired, "many more people have lost benefits each week, bringing the number of long-term unemployed Americans without government assistance to greater than two million."
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, noted that the speaker had said months ago "we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private sector jobs — but last week, Senate Democratic leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all."
That was an apparent reference to a refusal by Senate Democrats to permit a vote on a Republican proposal that would have allowed construction of the proposed Keystone oil pipeline from Canada and made numerous changes in the nation's health care law. GOP lawmakers say all of the proposals would help create jobs.
In remarks on the Senate floor before the vote, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., directly criticized Democratic leader Harry Reid for refusing to allow votes on GOP-drafted proposals to amend the measure. He called that a "black mark" in the Senate's history.
Some Democrats assailed Boehner rather than seek to meet with him. Said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.: "The House needs to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans right now, without attaching extraneous issues that are merely an attempt to score political points."
Whatever the bill's fate in the House, Senate Democrats have taken steps to follow their action with a test vote on a bill to strengthen "equal pay for equal work" laws. That measure includes a provision giving women the right to seek punitive damages in lawsuits in which they allege pay discrimination, a change that Republicans call a gift to trial lawyers who contribute extensively to Democratic campaigns.
Next up in the Democratic attempt to gain ground during the election year will be a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It is currently $7.25 an hour.
Underscoring the political backdrop, a little-noticed provision in the jobless-benefits legislation is specifically designed to benefit the long-term unemployed in North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a stiff challenge for a new term. It would make residents eligible for long-term benefits if the state negotiates an agreement with the Department of Labor. North Carolina residents are currently ineligible because state benefits were reduced below a federal standard.
In an additional indication of the challenge confronting the broader legislation, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies sent a letter to lawmakers citing "significant concerns about the implementation of the legislation" after a Senate compromise emerged last month. The organization represents state agencies that would be responsible for administering the law.
Citing the letter, Boehner pronounced the Senate bill "unworkable," and a blog posting by his aides quoted the Ohio Republican as saying there was "no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by (Majority) Leader (Harry) Reid" would help create more private sector jobs.
The drive to renew the lapsed program comes as joblessness nationally is slowly receding, yet long-term unemployment is at or above pre-recession levels in much of the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it accounts for an estimated one-third or more of all jobless individuals.
In a study last summer, the Urban Institute reported that "relative to currently employed workers, the long-term unemployed tend to be less educated and are more likely to be nonwhite, unmarried, disabled, impoverished and to have worked previously in the construction industry and construction occupations."