Jobless-benefits bill clears key test; passage assured

WASHINGTON — The Senate cleared the way Tuesday for final passage of a bill to extend long-stalled jobless benefits to an estimated 2.5 million people, as it voted 60-40 to halt the often-bitter partisan stalemate that’s stymied the popular program.

The vote limited Senate debate and virtually assured that Congress will approve the measure, probably later Tuesday or Wednesday. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

His signature will allow millions of people to receive benefits that were cut off in early June, when Congress failed to extend the program. The new measure will allow benefits to continue through Nov. 30. Procedures for filing and receiving claims vary from state to state.

This week’s votes end, at least until the November election, the congressional phase of the dispute; now the battle shifts to the campaign trail, and Tuesday’s debate gave a lively preview.

Most Republicans insisted that the $33.9 billion program be paid for with cuts in other spending rather than added to the federal budget deficit. Most Democrats said that the nation’s unemployment rate, 9.5 percent in June, underscored that helping the jobless was an emergency that should be funded by adding to the deficit. The Democrats prevailed.

The potential political fallout from that is evident in a Pew Research/National Journal poll that was conducted Thursday through Sunday. Some 51 percent said that reducing the deficit — estimated to hit $1.5 trillion this fiscal year — was more important than spending more to help the economy recover, which 40 percent favored. That’s a shift from February, when people were split evenly.

Perhaps more important politically, independent voters, by a 53-38 percent majority, said that reducing the deficit was more important. In February, that result was reversed: Fifty-one percent of them thought that spending was more important then, while 42 percent cited the deficit.

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Moderate Democratic lawmakers from swing districts have been increasingly reluctant to back deficit spending. Liberal Democrats painted Republicans as heartless for insisting on offsetting spending cuts, however, citing stories of personal hardship to illustrate their points and getting Obama directly involved.

Obama had a White House event Monday with laid-off workers to urge the Senate to act, and to tear into Republicans for stalling.

Democrats blasted away on the Senate floor Tuesday as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, read parts of letters from four constituents who were facing hard times.

He quoted “Richard from Summit County,” who wrote, “I just hate what this country’s become, where senators can’t relate to us common folks. Is there any hope for us?”

“The answer to Richard is yes,” Brown said. He railed against Republican intransigence: “Look at the stress it’s caused Richard.”

Republicans said they wanted to help the jobless, they just didn’t think it should add to the deficit.

“Ordinarily, this is not a controversial piece of legislation. Everyone agrees that we should help people who are struggling to get back on their feet keep food on the table,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Unfortunately, the president has decided to turn this debate into a political exercise.”

McConnell proposed a two-month benefits extension last month, funded by unspent economic stimulus money, the same funds that Democratic senators had proposed using to pay for a broader economic aid package.

Why, Republicans asked, if the need to help Richard and the others is so urgent, did Democrats take a four-day weekend and not return until Tuesday to vote on the benefits? And wasn’t a big reason that the party got stuck at 59 votes because Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., had concerns about the deficit and wouldn’t side with his party?

Democrats, who control 59 of the Senate’s 100 seats, got to 60 votes Tuesday because Sen. Carte Goodwin, D-W.Va., was sworn in to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd minutes before the vote. He joined the majority, along with Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.

The Associated Press