Senate OKs extending jobless aid

Pressure builds on House speaker to permit election-year action in that chamber as well

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WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted, 59-38, Monday to resurrect federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and a small band of Republican supporters swiftly appealed to a reluctant House Speaker John Boehner to permit election-year action in that chamber as well.

Steps are needed "to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans," seven House Republicans wrote Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. They released their letter as the Senate was bestowing its widely expected approval on the legislation.

Despite the appeal, the bill's prospects are cloudy at best, given widespread opposition among conservative lawmakers and outside groups and Mr. Boehner's unwillingness to allow it to the floor without changes that Republicans say would enhance job creation.

The Senate vote itself, seven months before congressional elections, capped a bruising three-month struggle. Fifty-one Democrats, two independents and six Republicans voted for approval.

The bill was the first major piece of legislation Democrats sent to the Senate floor when Congress convened early in the year, the linchpin of a broader campaign-season agenda meant to showcase concern for men and women who are doing poorly in an era of economic disparity between rich and poor.

In the months since, the Democrats have alternately pummeled Republicans for holding up passage and made concessions in an effort to gain support from enough GOP lawmakers to overcome a filibuster. Chief among those concessions was an agreement to pay the $9.6 billion cost of the five-month bill by making offsetting spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The White House-backed measure would retroactively restore benefits that were cut off in late December, and maintain them through the end of May. Officials say as many as 2.3 million jobless workers have been denied assistance since the law expired late last year. If renewed, the aid would total about $256 weekly, and in most cases go to men and women who have been off the job for longer than six months.

Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., the bill's leading supporters, said they were willing to consider changes in hopes of securing passage in a highly reluctant House. Mr. Heller also said he was seeking a meeting with Mr. Boehner to discuss the measure.

At the White House, President Barack Obama said in a statement: "I urge House Republicans to stop blocking a bipartisan compromise. ... Let's remove this needless drag on our economy and focus on expanding opportunity for all Americans."

In their letter to Mr. Boehner, seven House Republicans wrote that since the program expired, "many more people have lost benefits each week, bringing the number of long-term unemployed Americans without government assistance to greater than two million."

The drive to renew the lapsed program comes as joblessness nationally is slowly receding, yet long-term unemployment is at or above pre-recession levels in much of the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it accounts for an estimated one-third or more of all jobless individuals.

In a study last summer, the Urban Institute reported that "relative to currently employed workers, the long-term unemployed tend to be less educated and are more likely to be nonwhite, unmarried, disabled, impoverished and to have worked previously in the construction industry and construction occupations."

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted that the speaker had said months ago that "we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs -- but last week, Senate Democratic leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all."

That was an apparent reference to Senate Democrats' refusal to permit a vote on a GOP proposal that would have allowed the proposed Keystone oil pipeline construction from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Nebraska, Illinois and the Texas Gulf Coast and would have made numerous changes in the nation's health care law. Republicans contend that all of those proposals would help create jobs.

In Senate floor remarks before the vote, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for refusing to allow votes on GOP-drafted proposals to amend the measure.

Some Democrats assailed Mr. Boehner rather than seeking to meet with him. Said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.: "The House needs to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans right now, without attaching extraneous issues that are merely an attempt to score political points."

Whatever the bill's fate in the House, Senate Democrats have taken steps to follow their action with a test vote on a bill to strengthen "equal pay for equal work" laws. That measure includes a provision giving women the right to seek punitive damages in lawsuits in which they allege pay discrimination, a change that Republicans call a gift to trial lawyers who contribute extensively to Democratic campaigns.

Next up in the Democratic attempt to gain ground during the election year will be a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It is now $7.25 an hour.

Underscoring the political backdrop, a little-noticed provision in the jobless-benefits legislation is specifically designed to benefit the long-term unemployed in North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a stiff challenge for a new term. It would make residents eligible for long-term benefits if the state negotiates an agreement with the U.S. Labor Department. North Carolina residents are now ineligible because state benefits were reduced below a federal standard.


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