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US Senate Advances Jobless Benefits Extension

Job seekers line up in the hundreds to attend a marijuana industry job fair hosted by Open Vape, in Downtown Denver, Colorado, March 27, 2014.
Job seekers line up in the hundreds to attend a marijuana industry job fair hosted by Open Vape, in Downtown Denver, Colorado, March 27, 2014.
Michael Bowman
The U.S. Senate has advanced a bill to restart federal jobless benefits that expired late last year for the long-term unemployed.  Final approval is expected by week’s end in the Democrat-controlled chamber, but the bill may not get a vote in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Normally, unemployed Americans are entitled to six months of modest, government-provided income to help them and their families cover basic needs until a job is secured.  But economic conditions are far from normal, according to Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, who said millions of Americans need more time to find work and extended unemployment benefits in the meantime.

“They are hoping to make their payment on their light bill.  They are hoping to make their rent payment or their mortgages payment.  And savings run thin.  And that is why, during periods of high unemployment, we have created a longer unemployment insurance bridge to get them to that next job,” Merkley said.

Jobless benefits have been extended repeatedly since the 2008 financial crisis.  But Congress allowed the extension to expire in December, causing millions to lose compensation.  Many would get retroactive benefits if the Senate bill became law.

Wednesday, the legislation cleared a procedural hurdle when six Republicans voted with a unified Democratic caucus to end debate and proceed to a final vote.

But most Republicans voted no.  Senator John Cornyn said government benefits must be limited in duration.

“When the government continues to pay unemployment benefits for people who are out of work, human nature is such that people are disincentivized to go back to work and look for work,” he said.

Other Republicans objected to majority Democrats’ refusal to consider amendments to the bill.  Senator John Barrasso cast a "No" vote after his proposal to liberalize U.S. natural gas exports was blocked.

“What we are proposing is to be able to export liquefied natural gas to our European allies, our NATO allies, and to Ukraine.  Russia is using natural gas as a political weapon.  And it is up to us, not just to get Americans back to work, but to help undercut the ability of Russia to hold the people of Ukraine hostage,” Barrasso stated.

But final Senate passage of the bill is all but assured.  Not so in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner said Democrats are misguidedly focused on extending jobless benefits rather than boosting slow-growth economy that is not generating enough employment.

America’s economic performance will be a top issue in midterm elections in November, when one-third of the Senate and all House seats will be contested.

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