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Unemployment Extension Bill Clears Hurdle, Standoff Likely Over Until November

by Arthur Delaney

The Senate voted 60-40 on Tuesday to move forward with reauthorizing unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, 2.5 million of whom have missed checks since the end of May as Republicans and conservative Democrats filibustered several bills to renew the aid. After a final Senate vote, the bill goes to the House, which will vote on Wednesday.

Defeating the filibuster clears an easy path toward the president's desk this week. People who missed checks will be paid retroactively; people who exhausted all weeks of benefits available before the lapse will not get anything.

The great debate pitting deficit reduction against jobless aid is over -- until November, when it is certain to return. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the president will push for an additional extension of benefits when the current one expires shortly after the midterm congressional elections.

"I think it is fair and safe to assume that we are not going to wake up and find ourselves at the end of November at a rate of employment one would not consider to be an emergency," Gibbs said, in one of the most affirmative statements from Democrats about their plans for the next lapse in benefits.

Historically, Congress has never allowed federally-funded extended benefits to lapse when the national unemployment rate has been above 7.2 percent. The current rate is 9.5 percent, and few projections show it coming down any time soon.

Republicans in the Senate, along with Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, had blocked the bill because its $33 billion cost was not "paid for." For 49 days after the benefits lapsed, the congressional debate pitted deficit reduction against jobless aid, with many questioning whether extended benefits don't actually make people too lazy to look for work -- though the official line from Republicans has been that the cost of the benefits needed to be offset by taking funds from the 2009 stimulus bill.

"Republicans support extending benefits to the unemployed," said Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican leader in the Senate. "As the president himself said yesterday, we've repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And we are ready to support one now. What we do not support -- and we make no apologies for -- is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control."

Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins joined Democrats in breaking the filibuster; Ben Nelson stuck with the GOP. Democrats' previous attempt failed by one vote after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in June. His replacement, Carte Goodwin, gave the Democrats the 60 votes they needed.

The lapse caused plenty of anxiety and hardship for people who've been out of work for more than six months. "What a shame that it had to drag on so long, especially in light of the fact that it was only a matter of time before it was passed," said Judy Conti, a lobbyist with the National Employment Law Project. "Even retroactive checks won't make up for the people who have had their cars repossessed in the last month, who have been evicted from their apartments or houses, or who have faced other atrocities because of this unconscionable delay."

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