WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats broke a GOP filibuster safely and set the stage for a vote Wednesday on legislation that would restore jobless benefits for millions of people unable to find work.
After the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 60-40 on Tuesday to move ahead on the bill, approval became a formality. The measure would go to the House for a final vote and on to President Barack Obama.
At issue are payments averaging $309 a week for almost 5 million people whose 26 weeks of state benefits have run out. Those people are enrolled in a federally financed program providing up to 73 additional weeks of unemployment benefits.
About half of those currently eligible have had their benefits cut off since funding expired June 2. The jobless benefits are a lifeline to millions of people struggling to find work in what has so far been a largely jobless recovery.
"I can't tell you how relieved we will be when Congress passes this. We have in Pennsylvania about 200,000 people who have lost their unemployment compensation coverage because of their inaction," said Pennsylvania's secretary of labor and industry, Sandi Vito. "Folks need this money for their mortgages, for food, and so our goal is to get them their payments as quickly as possible."
The filibuster-breaking vote came moments after Democrat Carte Goodwin was sworn in to succeed West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who died last month at 92. Goodwin was the crucial 60th senator needed to defeat the Republican filibuster. The Senate gallery was packed with Goodwin supporters, who broke into applause as he cast his "aye" vote.
Republicans say they support the benefits extension. But with the exception of Maine GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who voted with Democrats on Tuesday, they insist any benefits be financed by cuts to programs elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
The election-year battle has been amplified by the White House and Democrats, who are emphasizing the plight of the unemployed while arguing that putting money in the pockets of jobless families would also boost economic revival.
Missing no opportunity to seize a political edge, the White House lashed out at Republicans simply for forcing an extra day of debate as required under Senate rules — unless all 100 senators agree to waive them.
"That means 30 more hours of suffering for these hardworking families trying to get by," Gibbs said. In fact, state unemployment agencies are gearing up to restore the benefits now that passage of the measure is assured this week.
Many Republicans have voted in the past for deficit-financed benefits extension — including as recently as March and twice in 2008, during the Bush administration. But now they are casting themselves as standing against out-of-control budget deficits, a stand that's popular with their core conservative supporters and the tea party activists whose support they're courting in hopes of retaking control of Congress.
"We've repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And we are ready to support one now," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "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."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., announced a last-ditch — and futile — plan to cut $40 billion in other federal programs to pay for the measure. Because of procedural moves by Democrats, it would take a two-thirds majority vote to pass Coburn's amendment.
The overall measure would reauthorize the extended benefits program through the end of November, providing payments to millions of people who've been out of work for six months or more. Maximum benefits in some states are far higher than the $309 a week nationwide average payment. In Massachusetts, the top benefit is $943 a week; in Mississippi, it is $235.
The extension started in February as one piece of a broader jobs package that also would have restored expired business tax breaks and helped state governments pay their bills.
That broader measure advanced in fits and starts. Then the political climate changed and it collapsed in June despite being cut back considerably.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed ahead with a bare-bones jobless benefits measure — only to fall one vote short because of Byrd's death.
The White House has signaled it may seek another renewal of benefits in November if unemployment remains painfully high.