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Senate Clears Way to Extend Unemployment Benefits in Victory for Democrats

  • Cindy Saine

The U.S. Senate has cleared the way for passage of a bill that will extend unemployment benefits for more than two million Americans out of work for more than six months.

Senate lawmakers voted 60 to 40 Tuesday to advance legislation that had been stalled due to opposition from minority Republicans.

Senate Democrats have broken through Republican procedural roadblocks to pave the way for extending unemployment benefits for some 2.5 million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more. Democrats had the help of one brand new Democratic senator and two Republicans who broke party ranks to extend jobless benefits.

Senate Democrats managed to get exactly the 60 votes they needed to break through Republican procedural delays and end debate on legislation to extend unemployment compensation benefits. The two senators from Maine, both moderate Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, voted with all of the Democrats to end debate on the measure and allow a vote. Democratic Senator Carte Goodwin, who was sworn in only minutes earlier to replace the late Senator Robert Byrd, also voted to end debate.

Republicans have used parliamentary tactics in the Senate to block an extension of unemployment benefits several times in recent weeks, angering Democratic lawmakers and President Barack Obama.

On the eve of the vote, President Obama called on Republicans to put jobless Americans who need money for food and rent ahead of party politics.

"It is time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics," said President Obama. "It is time to do what is right, not for the next election, but for the middle class."

Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says surveys show that Democrats have public opinion on their side on this issue.

"If you look at any survey, you will see where the public sides on this one," said Larry Sabato. "They are overwhelmingly with the Democrats, because it is difficult in this time of very, very high unemployment to oppose unemployment benefits."

For their part, Republicans say they do support extending unemployment benefits, but are demanding that Democrats offset the cost by cutting spending in other areas so as not to increase the federal deficit.

Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell:

"If Democrats were as concerned about passing this bill as they say they are, they would find a way to do it without adding to the debt," said Mitch McConnell. "After all there is no law that says we are required to exacerbate one crisis in an effort to alleviate another."

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the government cannot simply keep spending money that it does not have.

"We believe that the federal debt has grown to a point where it is an alarming level, and it is threatening the future of our children and our grandchildren," said Lamar Alexander.

The issue of extending unemployment benefits has appeal to both parties as an issue for upcoming congressional elections in November. For Democrats it is an opportunity to paint Republicans as apathetic to the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the current economic recession. Republicans can say that the fact that unemployment is still hovering at around 10 percent shows that Democrats' economic polices are not working.

Political analyst Larry Sabato says that the state of the economy will likely be the decisive issue in November.

"What is most important in November is where the economy is, it is more how many unemployed there still are," he said. "It is more whether the economy is growing or not, whether people feel they have more money in their pockets to spend."

After Senate action, the bill goes back to the House where Democrats have a much larger majority, and then to President Obama for signature as early as Wednesday.