The U.S. Senate went on Fourth of July recess Friday without passing an extension to unemployment insurance. The 1.2 million people who saw their unemployment benefits end on July 1 will have to wait until at least July 12, when the Senators return to Washington. Even then, there is no guarantee that Senate Democrats will have the 60 votes they need to pass the extension.
Because two Republican Senators - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine - voted with the Democrats, and one Democrat - Ben Nelson of Nebraska - voted with Republicans, the majority party had 59 votes, falling one shy of the necessary three-fifths to override a GOP filibuster.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, died on June 28 and his presumptive vote died with him. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, said he expects that Byrd's successor will have been appointed by July 12, and Reid intends to again try to bring the extension bill to the floor. It appears there will be 60 yea votes but, among things that could go awry for the Democrats, either Collins or Snowe could change her vote and stand with her party.
President Obama has slammed Senate Republicans for blocking the unemployment extension. But Republicans have fired back, claiming that they are acting responsibly by not backing a measure that would further increase the national debt.
Republicans also say they are sensitive to the millions of Americans who are out of work.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-MA, said he wants to provide an extension to unemployment insurance.
I have introduced a bill that will provide funding for these programs without adding to the out-of-control national debt, Brown said, in a video release on his Senate website.
Brown recommends that extended unemployment benefits be paid for with unspent stimulus money, and he claims there is $37 billion sitting in a Washington, D.C. slush fund which could be used.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, has also said that the unemployment insurance extension can be paid for with stimulus funds, and that Democrats are just unwilling to do so.
Democrats, however, say that Republicans are playing politics while millions of strapped Americans are suffering.
Republicans claim they are looking out for our children and grandchildren, but they aren't standing up for the children in my state, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, said in a release. Every day, I hear from constituents whose children will go hungry, or become homeless, because Republicans continue to block benefits for people who have lost their jobs.
Regan Lachapelle, spokesperson for Sen. Reid, denied that unspent stimulus money constitutes a slush fund. She said a part of the stimulus funds is still unspent, but the funds are all earmarked.
It is also counter-intuitive to use money intended to create jobs and put people back to work to cover unemployment insurance, Lachapelle said.
Unemployment insurance extensions are traditionally viewed as emergency appropriations, and they have always been granted in a bipartisan fashion, until this year, Lachapelle said.
We are all concerned about the deficit, she said. But the Republicans are doing this on the backs of working people who really need our help. It's disingenuous. These are the same Republicans who voted for every single tax break for the wealthy in the Bush administration. They had no problem doing that.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, has pointed out that the the federal government has never before declined to extend unemployment benefits as long as the unemployment rate was at least 7.4 percent nationally. The current national unemployment rate is 9.5 percent.
Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute said that over 8 million people will be without unemployment insurance by the end of the year if the logjam in the Senate is not cleared.
It is clearly the Republicans who are blocking this vital assistance, Eisenbrey said. It would be terrifically unfair if voters took this out on the Democrats, since they have been trying to pass the extension.