WASHINGTON — After weeks of partisan struggle that caused more than 400,000 people to miss unemployment checks, a bill restoring those benefits is on track to pass the Senate as early as Thursday.
The $18 billion measure would provide additional weeks of jobless benefits averaging $335 a week to people whose six months of state-paid benefits have run out. It’s a temporary extension through June 2 that gives House and Senate Democrats time to iron out a measure funding the program for the long-term jobless through the end of the year.
With help from a single Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio, Democrats by a 60-40 vote beat back a challenge from Republicans seeking to force them to pay for the measure with new revenues or cuts in spending rather than adding costs to the $12.8 trillion national debt.
Several other programs have lapsed as well, which has meant that newly jobless people can’t sign up for federal health insurance subsidies and prompted the government to delay Medicare payments to doctors rather than imposing a 21 percent cut. Democrats protested people living in flood plains can’t sign up for flood insurance or renew their policies, which has delayed mortgage lending and home sales.
Wednesday’s key vote appears to have set the stage for the Senate to pass the bill on Thursday, which would give the House time to pass the measure this week — and prevent even more people from losing benefits next week.
Democrats had earlier lost the vote because Patrick Leahy of Vermont was in his home state attending a funeral, but he returned and Democrats prevailed on a re-vote.
Specifically at issue in Wednesday’s votes was whether to permit the measure to be financed by adding to the national debt. Under Senate rules, a successful GOP challenge could have required the chamber to come up with ways to pay for the measure.
Democrats said deficit-financed jobless benefits not only needed to help people unable to find work but that they are one of the most effective ways to pump up the still-struggling economy.
“It’s an investment in our economy,” bill sponsor Max Baucus, D-Mont, said on Wednesday. “Unemployment benefits help our unemployed neighbors. And in helping our neighbors, unemployment benefits also help to keep open the neighborhood grocery store, and the neighborhood gas station.”
Additional weeks of jobless benefits have traditionally been routinely extended during times of high unemployment and have previously always been paid for by adding to the national debt.
But with the deficit easily surpassing $1 trillion — and with the issue of deficits and debt is of increasing concern to voters — many Republicans have changed their minds and are now insisting they be financed by spending cuts elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
Last month, 21 Republicans in the Senate voted for virtually identical temporary legislation extending the jobless benefits and the other programs without paying for them.
The full-year jobless benefits measure also contains tax cuts for individuals and businesses that have also expired. That measure is more complicated because the tax provisions require offsetting revenue increases and those used last month when passing it through the Senate were subsequently snatched up to help pay for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
Democratic leaders are considering raising taxes on managers of investment funds to make up for the shortfall. Much of their income is currently taxed as capital gains, with a top rate of 15 percent. House Democrats want to tax the fees as regular income, with a top tax rate of 35 percent, scheduled to rise to 39.6 percent in 2011.