As long-term unemployment continues to rise, unemployment benefits for many Americans will run out tonight because the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill extending the benefits late last week. An estimated 1.2 million Americans, including about 75,000 Iowans, stand to lose unemployment benefits during the month of March if Congress does not act. For reasons I don't understand, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid left the benefits extension out of the jobs bill approved by the Senate on February 24.
The following day, the House of Representatives approved a separate bill containing a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, federal subsidies for people on COBRA health insurance plans, current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, and a few other programs. Democrats tried to bring this bill up for a Senate vote right away, but retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky repeatedly objected to motions for unanimous consent. Democrats promised to keep filing motions until Bunning broke down, but instead they adjourned near midnight on Thursday night.
Democrats have been slamming Bunning in public statements and e-mail blasts. Here's an example from Senator Tom Harkin's office on Friday:
"We need to act quickly to extend the safety net and make sure laid-off workers have access to unemployment benefits through the end of the year, at least," said Harkin. "It is heartbreaking to see political games being played with the lives of hardworking people who are struggling to find a job, particularly when there has been strong bipartisan support in the past to extend unemployment benefits and other vital safety net programs.
"Unfortunately this is emblematic of the larger issue plaguing the Senate today: abuse of Senate procedure. We saw it in November as well. While Senate Republicans play games, families are sitting around their kitchen tables wondering how they will make ends meet.
"I intend to do everything in my power to fight this and hope other Senators will join me in this effort."
[...] In November, Senate Republicans used a similar delay tactic to filibuster a motion to proceed to a bill to extend unemployment compensation. After delaying and grinding Senate business to a halt for nearly a month, the bill passed 97-1.
Bunning's behavior is inexcusable, and he even had the gall to complain about missing a college basketball game while staying on the Senate floor to block this bill.
At the same time, it is pathetic that Democrats adjourned instead of standing and fighting Senate Republicans all weekend long. Apparently one or two other Republicans showed up Thursday night to back up Bunning, but so what? Democrats should have refused to leave until the unemployment benefits bill passed. At the Congress Matters blog, David Waldman explained other ways Democrats could have handled Bunning's procedural roadblock. Chris Bowers looked at the big picture here:
Democrats are in charge, and they are going to get blamed for this. Democratic attempts to blame this on Senate procedure will ring utterly hollow. Not only do people not understand, or care about, those rules, but it simply sounds wimpy and pathetic for the people running the United States Government to throw their hands up in the air and say "our procedural rules prevented us from doing anything to solve this huge problem. Sorry."
Democrats did not have to adjourn. They could have kept fighting Bunning. Further, they all agreed to the rules under which the Senate operates, and most of them are still defending those rules. Blaming Senate procedure is not going to extend anyone's unemployment or COBRA benefits, and its not going to win many hearts around the country.
Sure, Jim Bunning is currently the biggest asshole in the country right now. However, if you think that procedure is a problem, then start working to change the procedure. If you think that unemployment benefits need to be extended, then don't adjourn for the weekend when those benefits are slated to run out.
Sometime this week, or perhaps later in March, Senate Democrats will break the Republican obstruction. But when that happens, "state governments will still have to deal with the extra administrative costs of shutting down and restarting the extended benefits programs."
Some Republicans, like Representative Steve King, are philosophically opposed to extending unemployment benefits, but they fail to acknowledge that extending unemployment benefits has tremendous "bang for the buck." The Iowa Fiscal Partnership recently calculated that that the unemployment benefits extension contained in last year's federal stimulus bill "produced $501.7 million increased economic activity and $112.1 million in income in 2009, while creating or saving 3,727 jobs" in Iowa alone.