CAPITOL HILL— After months of delays, the U.S. Senate has approved an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed by a vote of 59 to 38. The measure faces significant opposition in the Republican-led House of Representatives. Democratic lawmakers will trumpet the issue on the campaign trail if the effort is blocked.
Midterm elections are seven months away, but lawmakers are positioning themselves for the battle ahead. Republicans repeatedly blast President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and urge free market solutions to the nation’s challenges.
Democrats are honing a populist economic message, championing an increase in the minimum wage and an extension of benefits for workers left jobless for more than six months.
The Democratic-led Senate approved the latter item Monday. Majority Leader Harry Reid had a message for the House of Representatives:
“Hopefully Republicans in the House will have soft hearts and strong minds and allow this to pass over there. It is in their hands. We hope they will be considerate to the 2.8 million long-term unemployed across the country. Perhaps struggling Americans will finally get the relief they deserve," said Reid.
House Speaker John Boehner says the real solution is more jobs, not more government benefits for the unemployed.
“If we were going to consider extending emergency unemployment [compensation], we ought to do something about creating better jobs in America, higher wages in America. To help get the economy moving again, that is the real issue," said Boehner.
The issue is not entirely partisan. Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, where unemployment remains high, helped craft the bill. Backers from both parties say their goal is to help Americans survive a weak job market.
Democratic Senator Cory Booker says the jobless need help.
“The meager [unemployment] checks give a little bit of stability so they [the jobless] can do what is necessary to look for work. It helps them keep their car insurance, so they can ride to [job] interviews. It helps them meet mortgage payments, so they can keep a roof over their heads, or rent payments," said Booker.
Republican opponents of the bill counter that Democrats’ real goal is to boost their electoral prospects.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of holding “show votes” that reveal them to be “obsessed with November 4.” That is the date when one-third of the Senate and all House seats will be contested. Democrats accuse House Republicans of similar motives in holding dozens of votes to try to repeal Obamacare.
America’s unemployment rate is at 6.7 percent, down significantly from the depths of the economic recession in 2009, but still far higher than normal four years into a recovery.