Shortly after the Senate narrowly cleared the first procedural hurdle to temporarily extend federal benefits to the unemployed, President Obama urged Congress to pass the bill and laid out the moral case to help poor and struggling Americans.
“I just want everybody to understand this is not an abstraction,” said Obama, who was flanked by several who lost their benefits on Dec. 28 after Congress failed to act before leaving for the holidays. “…These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members, it could at some point be any of us. That’s why we set up a system of unemployment insurance. The notion was everybody is making a contribution because you don’t know when the business cycle or an economic crisis might make any of us vulnerable.”
Obama at the White House added, “We are not a people who say you’re on your own. We’re people who believe that we’re all in it together.”
The bill advanced by a 60-37 vote after six Republicans joined the Democratic majority. Democrats needed at least 60 votes to push the legislation forward and begin debate.
Long-term jobless insurance expired for 1.3 million Americans on Dec. 28. Senate Dems pushed the three-month extension bill, spearheaded by Democratic. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, insisting not that a failure to pass it would hurt the economy and devastate Americans who would be left hanging. Republicans, meanwhile argued that the renewal, set to cost about $6 billion, should be offset by cuts in other parts of the budget.
“Spending $6.5 billion in three months without trying to find ways to pay for it or improve the underlying policy is irresponsible and takes us in the wrong direction,” said Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker in a statement. Some conservatives have also argued extending unemployment insurance would somehow encourage Americans to stop looking for work -- a notion that the president firmly rejected.
“I meet a lot of people as president of the United States,” said Obama. “…I meet a lot of people, and I can’t name a time when I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job. The long term unemployed are not lazy or lacking in motivation. They are coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations.”
The final outcome of the bill is still murky. The legislation must now must pass the Senate and faces an even bigger climb in the Republican-controlled House. But the procedural vote is still being seen as a win for Obama, who is trying to center his second term on income inequality and phoned several GOP senators on Monday night hoping to get them on board.
However, House Speaker John Boehner indicated after the vote there would be a fight in the lower chamber of Congress, saying any extension must be paid for.
"One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” said the Ohio lawmaker. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I'll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America's unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job."
Five Republicans voted with Heller and the Democrats to push the legislation forward, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio.
During his remarks, Obama also made an economic case for extending the benefits, which he called a “vital economic lifeline.” He pointed to independent economists who have shown that the unemployment insurance helps grow the economy and creates new jobs.
The president noted that the bill still has a ways to go before it lands on his desk and urged Congress to put partisanship aside to help Americans and to create jobs.
“We’ve got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay and we need the House of Representatives to be able to vote for it as well,” said Obama. “That’s the bottom line.”