Aid for jobless is closer to passage

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday took a major, and likely decisive, step toward restoring jobless benefits for hundreds of thousands of people, as those constituents endured an eighth straight day without assurances of any help.

Efforts to provide the benefits have been stalled while senators fought over how and whether to pay for the aid. A 60-34 Senate vote Monday to overcome a procedural hurdle and move to a final vote offered hope that the impasse will be broken later this week.

In the meantime, the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that studies employment issues, estimates that about 212,500 people lose benefits each week as Congress stalls on approving money for the aid. By the end of April, the total could be nearly 1 million.

The jobless aid money ran out April 5.

"The American people are saying, 'Why can't those guys get together up there and get something done?' " Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked during Monday's debate. "'Whatever happened to common sense?' they say. 'Why can't you extend their unemployment benefits?' "

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who's led the fight to stall the extension unless it's paid for, countered, "We're not just fighting about unemployment benefits... we're debating the issue of whether or not we take from those who come after us and give to those today."

The unemployment benefits are the major part of a $9.2 billion package that would pay for a wide range of government programs this month, notably payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, the National Flood Insurance Program and health insurance help for jobless people. Backers want the measure to be considered an emergency, meaning that no offsetting spending cuts or revenue would be necessary.

Usually, the approval of such matters is routine, but fiscal conservatives recently have dug in. The latest impasse is the second in recent weeks over extending the jobless and other programs.

In March, it was Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who held up an extension for that month, protesting that it wasn't paid for, but he relented under pressure from Republican leaders. This time, Republicans rallied around Coburn.

"Democrats can no longer hide behind the argument of good intentions when the results threaten our very stability as a nation. We must get a handle on the deficit and debt," argued Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., charged that such logic was downright cruel.

"These are not bums," he said of the jobless. "These are people out of work for a long time. If we extend this unemployment benefit we can give the unemployed families the help they need to put food on the table or go to the doctor."