In a surprise move, six Republicans joined with Democratic senators to advance a bill that would extend jobless benefits, suggesting that the budget that America’s highly partisan Congress passed at the end of 2013 may have been more than a fluke.
The procedural vote Tuesday clears a path for legislation that would restore unemployment benefits that lapsed for some 1.3-million people left stranded by the financial crisis at the end of December. The extension would last for three months.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively needs 60 votes to pass legislation because anything less leaves bills open to filibuster by the minority Republicans. He commands 55 in his Democratic caucus. The final vote Tuesday was 60 to 37.
Few were expecting Mr. Reid to get his way. The fact that he did suggests that some of the bipartisan spirit that allowed agreement on the first budget in four years has carried into the New Year. Continued signs of co-operation on Capitol Hill could bolster the economy, as political uncertainty has undermined the recovery on repeated occasions.
“We’ve got to make sure this recovery leaves nobody behind,” President Barack Obama said at the White House. “These aren’t folks who are just sitting back and waiting for things to happen,” he added. “The financial crisis was so devastating that there still are a lot of people who are struggling.”
Most Republican senators are critical of the legislation because it doesn’t include spending cuts to balance the $6.5-billion (U.S.) cost of expanding a benefits program that dates to the initial aftermath of the financial crisis. Mr. Reid cancelled a vote the bill Monday evening, as only a couple of Republicans had said they would support him, despite intense lobbying, including phone calls to Republican centrists from President Barack Obama.
Passage of extended jobless benefits in the Senate now is assured. That leaves the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans and far less receptive to compromising with the president.
Despite Speaker John Boehner’s willingness to compromise on a budget at the end of 2013, it’s unlikely he will get behind a plan to extend jobless benefits without something significant in return. Many Republicans argue that lengthy unemployment insurance is exacerbating joblessness by creating a disincentive to work, even though claimants must demonstrate they are actively seeking employment to qualify for benefits.
Taking a hardline on unemployment benefits is a risky proposition for Republicans. Failure to do so will set them up to be castigated as cold-hearted by Mr. Obama and other Democrats ahead of midterm elections in November.
That really sells the American people short,” Mr. Obama said of the argument that unemployment benefits are a disincentive to work. “I can’t name a time when I’ve met an American that would rather have an unemployment check than a job.”