WASHINGTON — After weeks of partisan struggle that caused more than 400,000 people to miss unemployment checks, a bill restoring those benefits is on track to pass the Senate as early as today.
The $18 billion measure would provide additional weeks of jobless benefits averaging $335 a week to people whose six months of state-paid benefits have run out. It's an extension through June 2 that gives House and Senate Democrats time to iron out a measure funding the program for the long-term jobless through the end of the year.
With help from a single Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio, Democrats by a 60-40 vote beat back a challenge from Republicans seeking to force them to pay for the measure with new revenues or cuts in spending rather than adding costs to the $12.8 trillion national debt.
Other programs halted
Several other programs have lapsed, which has meant that newly jobless people can't sign up for federal health insurance subsidies and prompted the government to delay Medicare payments to doctors rather than imposing a 21 percent cut. Democrats protested that people living in flood zones can't sign up for flood insurance or renew policies, which has delayed mortgage lending and home sales.
Meanwhile, polls show that the public is growing more disgusted with lawmakers regardless of party. Only 20.7 percent of the public approves of Congress, while 73 percent disapproves of how lawmakers are doing their jobs, according to an average of polls taken by RealClearPolitics.com.
Wednesday's key vote appears to have set the stage for the Senate to pass the bill today, which would give the House time to pass the measure this week and prevent even more people from losing benefits next week.
Democrats had earlier lost the vote because Patrick Leahy of Vermont was in his state attending a funeral, but he returned and Democrats prevailed on a re-vote.
At issue in Wednesday's votes was whether to permit the measure to be financed by adding to the national debt. Under Senate rules, a successful GOP challenge could have required the chamber to come up with ways to pay for the measure.
Democrats said deficit- financed jobless benefits not only are needed to help people unable to find work but also are one of the most effective ways to pump up the struggling economy.
"It's an investment in our economy," bill sponsor Max Baucus, D-Mont, said Wednesday. "Unemployment benefits help our unemployed neighbors. ... Unemployment benefits also help to keep open the neighborhood grocery store and the neighborhood gas station."
Additional weeks of jobless benefits have traditionally been routinely extended during times of high unemployment and have always been paid for by adding to the national debt.
But with the deficit easily surpassing $1 trillion, and with the issue of deficits and debt of increasing concern to voters, many Republicans have changed their minds and are insisting that they be financed by spending cuts elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
The full-year jobless benefits measure contains tax cuts for individuals and businesses that have also expired. That measure is more complicated because the tax provisions require offsetting revenue increases and those used last month when passing it through the Senate were snatched up to help pay for health care overhaul.
Democratic leaders are considering raising taxes on managers of investment funds to make up for the shortfall.
The Bee Washington Bureau contributed to this report.