The Senate voted Monday to move forward on a measure that extends several jobless aid programs that expired on April 5 after Congress adjourned for its Easter break.
In late March, on the eve of the recess, Republicans had refused to allow for speedy passage of the measure, citing deficit concerns, and instead offered their own version of the $9 billion bill that was paid for with unused funds from the $787 billion stimulus package. Democrats insisted that unemployment benefits be extended on an emergency basis, exempt from "pay-as-you-go" budget rules.
Four Republicans -- Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- broke with their party and supported a procedural vote to advance the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he reached an agreement with Republicans to proceed to the actual bill on Tuesday afternoon, with a final vote possible on Thursday.
Snowe said that even if the parties don't reach a deal on a funding offset this week, she'll vote in favor of the measure. "If it's not gonna happen, it's not gonna happen in terms of financing it," she said. "Let's try. If we can't, we can't. Yes, I'm in the category of 'you've got to put that money out there for the people who need it and desperately deserve it.'"
The programs probably didn't need to be allowed to expire in the first place. Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who blocked the bill by objecting to Democratic motions for "unanimous consent," said before the break that he thought Democrats would have the 60 votes to break his filibuster if only they cared to stay in town and try.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday emailed HuffPost a link to the party-line vote to adjourn. Democrats made the political calculation that people would simply blame the GOP for the lapse, since the irascible Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) won his party such awful press when he blocked the previous extension.
Because of the lapse, last week 200,000 people prematurely lost eligibility for Emergency Unemployment Compensation, according to the National Employment Law Project. EUC provides up to 53 weeks of federally-funded unemployment benefits on top of the initial 26 weeks provided by states. States warned benefits recipients that they may be ineligible for future "tiers" of EUC, but many agencies may have continued operations as normal on the expectation that the Senate will get its act together.
Sen. Snowe told HuffPost that some of her constituents did, in fact, prematurely lose their benefits.
The National Flood Insurance Program also lapsed, obstructing real estate deals in areas that require flood insurance, and so did a 65 percent subsidy for COBRA health benefits for laid-off workers.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said on a conference call with reporters before the vote that it was the "right calculation" to adjourn for the Easter break without finishing the bill because the break gave Democrats momentum to win over Republicans.
"I don't think it could have been done successfully," said Durbin when asked why Democrats didn't stay and finish the job if they were really worried about people losing their unemployment benefits. "There was no indication that Republicans would have provided us any support. We don't have 60 votes on our side of the aisle."
Durbin said Republicans' counter-proposal to offset the extension with unused stimulus funds would be bad economics, a view shared by progressive economists. Unemployment benefits are generally regarded as among the most economically stimulative forms of stimulus spending.
"What Sen. Coburn has suggested as an offset for this unemployment is to cut back on spending on projects that are already on the books," said Durbin. "He will eliminate jobs in construction trades and building projects in order to pay off unemployment today... He's creating more unemployment by cutting off these projects."
The bill in question will not give the unemployed additional weeks of benefits beyond the 99 weeks available in some states, though Durbin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said it's possible Congress could give the unemployed a longer lifeline after eligibility for the enhanced benefits is extended for the rest of the year. Coburn has said he expects that will happen. Both the House and Senate have passed yearlong extensions, but the differences between the two versions have not been resolved. The bill under consideration this week is a stopgap measure to extend eligibility for the enhanced benefits for 30 days.