It wasn't easy, it took nearly four months of negotiations, and the bill failed several attempts at passage, but the Senate finally approved
an extension of federal unemployment benefits late yesterday afternoon.
The Senate voted 59-38 to pass a five-month extension that would retroactively restore federal benefits to an estimated 2.3 million Americans who are long-term unemployed. The vote was a victory for Sens. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, who've spent more than three months trying to persuade a small group of GOP senators to break with their party to support an extension. Democrats retooled the bill to satisfy Senate Republicans, who demanded that the benefits be paid for. The $10 billion cost is offset by tweaks to federal pension payments and higher customs fees. The bill also prohibits millionaires from receiving benefits
The final roll call is online here
. Note that while the vast majority of Senate Republicans opposed the bipartisan compromise, the bill picked up six GOP votes en route to passage. The measure enjoyed unanimous Democratic support.
President Obama is eager to sign the bill and has lobbied repeatedly for its passage, but the legislation will first go to the Republican-led House, where it's odds are, well, not good.
But before we simply assume the bill has no chance at all, it's worth appreciating the nuances, because it's still possible we'll see some action on this.
To be sure, at first blush, it would appear the millions of Americans who need these benefits to keep their heads above water have little reason to hope
The fate of expired unemployment benefits tied the Senate in knots for nearly four months. The response in the House: a nonchalant shrug. The bill's not high on the House agenda this week, and it won't be much higher when the House returns from a two-week recess at the end of the month.
House GOP leaders insist the bill would not create jobs (they're completely wrong
and refuse to acknowledge the evidence) and isn't paid for (it is fully paid for and up until very recently, House Republicans didn't much care either way when it came to jobless benefits).
But behind the scenes, there's a group
of rank-and-file House Republicans from "high-unemployment regions or swing districts" urging a vote on the bipartisan Senate bill.
"As many Americans continue to struggle without benefits, we respectfully request that the House immediately consider this bill or a similar measure to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans," the group wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) this week.
And at the same time, the House Democratic minority "won't go down without a fight
." Far from simply accepting the bill's inevitable death, Dems intend to doing everything they can to keep jobless benefits on the front burner.
Indeed, it's a familiar dynamic: a popular, bipartisan bill, which would boost the economy and is fully paid for, would very likely pass the House and become law if Republican leaders simply allowed a vote. In this case, I'm describing an extension of unemployment benefits, but that same sentence can be used to describe all kinds of worthwhile measures, including immigration reform.
One scenario to keep an eye on is the House GOP beginning some kind of bargaining process. They'll likely say that helping the unemployed is a priority only Democrats care about, so the bill, they'll argue, must be balanced with a Republican priority. In other words, the House may take up the Senate bill, but only after adding a far-right sweetener such as approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or chipping off a piece of the federal health care law.
Am I saying the GOP majority would let struggling Americans suffer unless they're given some kind of reward? Actually, yes, that's pretty much the only viable scenario left on the table.
Even this is a long shot -- House GOP leaders simply do not want to extent jobless aid, with one prominent Republican recently describing these benefits as "immoral
" -- but if the bill has any chance at all, it'll probably have to come as the result of horse-trading.