President Obama is ready to sign a $34 billion bill to extend unemployment benefits to many out-of-work Americans after the U.S. Senate finally passed the bill last night and the House of Representatives followed suit today. Unemployment benefits for many Americans started running out in early June, but Senate Democrats failed in several attempts to overcome Republican filibusters of the measure. This week a cloture motion on the unemployment benefits bill finally passed 60-40, with Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine joining 58 Democrats to overcome a filibuster. (West Virginia now has a Democratic appointee filling Robert Byrd's old seat; his long illness and death this summer had left Democrats one vote short of 60.)
"There's bipartisan consensus that Congress should extend unemployment insurance, but there's no reason we can't extend benefits and pay for it. We've offered solutions, five separate times, on ways to pay, only to be rebuffed by the Democratic leadership.
"Iowans have told me time and time again that Congress must stop deficit spending, so I voted to extend unemployment insurance and pay for it."
Give me a break. When we had a Republican president, Grassley never hesitated to vote for tax cuts for the wealthy, Medicare part D, or war supplemental funding bills that added to the deficit. In fact, under President George W. Bush the Republican-controlled Congress passed unemployment extensions without making sure the additional spending was "paid for." Senator Tom Harkin got it right in his July 20 speech on the Senate floor:
"For far too long, the long-term unemployed have gone without the assistance they need because of political gamesmanship in the Senate. Critics argue that we cannot help some of the most desperate workers in America if it adds a dime to the deficit, but in the next breath, they argue in favor of extending hundreds of billions of tax breaks for the most fortunate and privileged Americans was necessary. Tell that to the working family in Iowa who, through no fault of their own, struggles with joblessness and cannot put food on the table.
"Some two and a half million unemployed Americans have seen their benefits terminated in recent weeks. They are among the nearly 6.8 million Americans who have been out of work for more than half a year. That's the highest number of long-term unemployed we've had since we started keeping track in 1948."
The House approved the unemployment benefits extension by a vote of 272 to 152 (roll call). Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell all voted for the bill. Ten Democrats (mostly representing conservative districts) crossed the aisle to vote against the bill, and 31 House Republicans voted for it. That's a surprisingly high number of Republicans going against their leadership. Iowa Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King stuck with the majority of their caucus. Not only do they lack compassion for some long-term unemployed Iowans whose benefits have run out, they apparently don't understand that unemployment benefits are among the most stimulative forms of government spending.
It's good news that benefits will be restored to millions of Americans in the coming weeks, but in other respects this bill falls short of what's needed to address our long-term unemployment problem. Although the number of Americans out of work for at least six months is at its highest level in six decades, Congress still hasn't done anything for people who have exhausted the full 99 weeks of eligibility for unemployment benefits. The House has approved more infrastructure spending and other measures that would create jobs, but for now the Senate seems unable to overcome GOP filibusters of further stimulus.