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Unemployment insurance: Why extending it this time has been so hard

Both parties in Congress are citing the US deficit as reasons not to approve new spending unless it's offset. For Republicans, that issue has been unemployment insurance. For Democrats, it's extending the Bush tax cuts.

By Staff writer / July 21, 2010

Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, left, and newly sworn-in Sen. Carte Goodwin (D) of West Virginia, speak to the press following a Senate vote on extending unemployment benefits Tuesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

A protracted debate over something that used to be easy on Capitol Hill – extending unemployment insurance in tough economic times – comes to an end Wednesday, as the Senate moves to a final vote on a $34 billion relief package.

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But a caution: The partisan rift over how to get out of a deep, economic slump that sustained the standoff is only widening. Wednesday’s unemployment vote is already surfacing as a theme for midterm elections that could flip control of one or both houses of Congress.

“After a partisan minority blocked this critical aid to our nation’s families three separate times, the Senate has moved forward on restoring benefits to the 2.5 million Americans whose livelihood has been held hostage by obstruction and game-playing over the past weeks,” said President Obama in a statement after the Senate vote.

The conviction that how governments tax and spend can lift an economy out of a slump – or deepen it – is now fixed faith on both sides of the aisle. The partisan fireworks are over when the huge federal budget deficit is reason to jettison new spending or tax cuts, and when it isn't.

Republicans say new spending to extend unemployment insurance must be offset, citing deficit concerns. They don't apply that same standard, though, when calling for extending the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. Democrats want to only partially extend the Bush tax cuts, citing deficit concerns that, likewise, they don’t mention when calling to extend unemployment insurance.

It’s a partisan difference that has been amplified by six months of gridlock on this measure.

“Today was the eighth time Republicans overwhelmingly said no to this legislation,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Tuesday, before a key procedural vote that broke the stalemate. “In years past, during Republicans' administrations, Democrats always joined on a bipartisan basis by saying yes. The only difference today is that we finally had exactly enough senators who wanted to vote yes.”

Sen. Carte Goodwin (D) of West Virginia, sworn in just minutes before the vote, gave Democrats the 60th vote they needed to break a Republican filibuster. Two Republicans, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine voted with Democrats; centrist Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted with the GOP minority.

In response, Senate Republicans note that the last time Congress extended unemployment insurance, the costs were offset.

“I don't know anybody who's not in favor of extending unemployment, but I will remind you that the president just last November, when we did a previous extension of unemployment insurance, [said] that it was done in a responsible way and it was paid for,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on a briefing on Tuesday.

Some “$1.2 trillion later – that much has been added to the debt since then – the president now conveniently ignores that the position he took last November was the position we're taking now, which is, of course, we ought to extend unemployment, but we ought to pay for it,” he added.

Meanwhile, voters still rank jobs and the economy as their No. 1 concern. In a Gallup poll this month, public concern over the federal debt and deficits ranked No. 6. But dissatisfaction with government, Congress, or politicians ranked No. 2.

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