CAPITOL HILL — A bill to revive expired U.S. unemployment compensation has survived an initial test vote in the Senate. President Barack Obama strongly backs the measure, which would extend benefits for the long-term unemployed by three months if passed by both houses of a politically-divided Congress.
Six Senate Republicans voted with a unified Democratic caucus to begin debate on a bill to restart unemployment checks for more than a million Americans who have been jobless for six months. Those benefits expired at the end of last year, bringing added hardship to struggling families and threatening the nation’s economic recovery, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“Today there is only one job opening for every three people searching," he said. "Failing to extend unemployment insurance will not just be a hardship for out-of-work Americans, it will be a drag on our economy. Allowing this important lifeline to lapse will cost 240,000 jobs."
Reid blocked a Republican motion to tie further jobless benefits to a weakening of President Barack Obama’s health care law, and to require budget cuts to offset the costs of the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued the unemployed would not need government checks if Washington embraced pro-growth economic policies.
“It is time to get away from temporary government programs and give the American people the tools they need to drive an economy that truly works for them and for their families," McConnell said.
Fellow-Republican Senator Jeff Sessions complained the bill would add $6 billion to the federal deficit and do nothing to address the causes of joblessness.
“It is an aspirin for a fever, but the fever has been raging for weeks now," he said. "And we need to deal with the cause of it rather than continuing to treat the symptoms."
The bill’s lone Republican co-sponsor, Senator Dean Heller, said many Americans still need a helping hand.
“These are hard-working individuals who rely on these benefits," he said. "For these benefits to simply vanish without giving families time to plan or figure out alternatives to help them get by, to me, is just not right."
At the White House, Obama hailed the initial Senate vote and urged swift congressional passage of the measure.
“There are a lot of our friends, a lot of our neighbors, who have lost their jobs, and they are working their tails off every single day trying to find a new job," he said. "Now, as the job market keeps getting better, more and more of these folks will find work. But in the meantime, the [unemployment] insurance keeps them from falling off a [financial] cliff."
If Senate support for the bill holds firm, passage could come by week’s end. Its fate in the Republican-led House of Representatives is unclear. After the Senate vote, Speaker John Boehner issued a statement saying a jobless benefits extension should be paid for, and that the House will “remain focused on growing the economy”.