Congress passes unemployment extension, no thanks to Iowa Republicans

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.)

Iowa’s Chuck Grassley joined the Republican filibuster again this week, and last night he voted no on the bill itself, which passed 59-39. Grassley’s office sent out this statement yesterday:

“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.

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Iowans split on party lines as Congress extends unemployment benefits

The Senate approved another short-term extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 59 to 39 (roll call). The bill also extends COBRA benefits (related to keeping your health insurance after leaving your job) and delays a planned cut in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. (Click here for the text of the bill. Iowa’s senators split, with Tom Harkin voting yes and Chuck Grassley voting no, as did all but three Republican senators.

The House of Representatives quickly passed the bill as amended by the Senate. The bill had more bipartisan support in the House, with 49 Republicans joining 240 Democrats (roll call). However, Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) voted with the majority of the GOP caucus against the extension. I guess they don’t think the thousands of long-term unemployed in their districts need the extra help. King has previously spoken out against extending jobless benefits, which in his view are becoming a “hammock” instead of a safety net. Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) all voted for the bill. After the jump I’ve posted a statement from Loebsack’s office about this legislation.

President Barack Obama signed the bill last night, but Congress will revisit this issue soon, because the new law extends unemployment benefits only until June 2 and other measures through the end of May.

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Senate to extend unemployment benefits, but Grassley votes no (again)

The U.S. Senate defeated a Republican attempt to filibuster another month-long extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 60 to 34. Four Republicans voted with all of the Democrats present on the cloture motion, but Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley supported the filibuster, as did most of his fellow Republicans (roll call here). Senator Tom Harkin was absent but would have voted to overcome the filibuster.

Republicans claim they simply want the unemployment benefits to be “paid for” (though they never objected when supplemental spending for the war in Iraq, or tax cuts for the wealthy, added to the deficit). Senator Chuck Schumer of New York countered,

“Unemployment extensions have always been considered emergency spending, and there’s a reason for that. […] Unemployment insurance is a form of stimulus, but offsetting the extension of this program would negate the stimulative impact. It would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Governor Chet Culver had written to the entire Iowa delegation in Congress urging them to pass the benefits extension. Unlike Grassley, our governor understands how important these benefits are as economic stimulus:

The nonpartisan Iowa Fiscal Partnership released a study earlier this year showing the economic impacts of stimulus spending for unemployment benefits. Analysts found that direct spending for unemployment insurance included in the federal stimulus, along with ripple effects from that spending, produced $501.7 million increased economic activity and $112.1 million in income in 2009, creating or saving 3,727 jobs.

For the current year, the researchers also found direct and indirect benefits but in lower amounts, $314.6 million activity, $68.6 million income and 2,258 jobs.

So extending unemployment benefits doesn’t just help the jobless and their families, it helps businesses in virtually every community. The bad news is that the bill the Senate is poised to pass this week is not retroactive, meaning that unemployed Americans whose benefits expired on April 5 won’t get back the money they would have received this month had the Senate passed this bill before the Easter recess. It was a big mistake for Democrats to go home without taking care of this business in March.

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Grassley votes no as Senate passes bill extending various benefits, tax credits

Yesterday the Senate approved HR 4213, the Tax Extenders Act of 2009, by a 62-35 vote. Tom Harkin voted for the bill, as did all but one Democrat. Chuck Grassley voted against the bill, as did all but six Republicans (roll call here). Harkin’s office summarized some of the $140 billion bill’s key provisions:

o    Extend the current federal unemployment benefits program through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the federal funding of the state share of Extended Benefits through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend eligibility for the temporary increase of $25 per week in individual weekly unemployment compensation through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the 65 percent subsidy for COBRA coverage through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the Medicare payment fix for doctors.

o    Extend FMAP, the federal share of Medicaid payments, to give state budgets some relief.

Last week, Congress passed a 30-day extension of the federal unemployment benefits program (through April 5th) and the extension prior to that continued unemployment benefits for 2 months (from Dec 2009 to Feb 2010).

The Hill reported that about $80 billion of the bill’s cost “goes toward prolonging increased levels of federal unemployment aid and COBRA healthcare benefits for the jobless through the end of December.” According to the Washington Post, the main Republican objection was that the bill will add to the deficit. It’s notable that Republicans never let concerns about the deficit stop them from voting for unaffordable wars or tax cuts for the wealthy. But unemployment benefits that help struggling families while stimulating the economy and creating jobs are too expensive for Republicans.

The Senate bill approved yesterday also included an extension of the Biodiesel Tax Credit through the end of December. Most Iowa biodiesel plants are not viable without this tax credit, and consequently many shut down production in January of this year.

House Democrats may want a conference committee to reconcile the bill the Senate passed yesterday with a $154 billion jobs bill the House approved in December. That House bill included “significant new spending for infrastructure projects, as well as aid to states to prevent layoffs of key personnel such as teachers, police and firefighters.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has reportedly promised to “bring up a bill that included the infrastructure and state fiscal aid measures from the House jobs bill” before the Senate’s Easter break.

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