There was no easing into his first day as a U.S. senator. Just minutes after being sworn in last Tuesday, West Virginia Sen. Carte Goodwin received a round of applause from fellow Democrats when he voted to halt debate on a bill to restore long-term unemployment benefits. Goodwin, 36, who replaces the late Sen. Robert Byrd until a special election in November, is now the youngest senator. His first vote, which ended a Republican filibuster, will affect nearly 2.5 million American families who have gone without unemployment insurance checks, many for more than 50 days.
The Senate wrangled further on the unemployment bill last week, but passed it that evening, 59 to 39. The following day, the House easily passed the measure, 272 to 152, and President Obama quickly signed it into law, restoring benefits retroactively from when they stopped in early June.
But the political melee over the bill will likely reverberate for both parties, since it may be the last of the Democrats' major economic stimulus measures to advance before Election Day. In the Rose Garden last week, with three unemployed Americans standing closely at his back, Obama put the onus on Republicans for delaying the measure for weeks. "It's time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics," he said.
Throughout the debate, Democrats, like the president, emphasized the emergency nature of the unemployment benefits, in addition to their stimulative economic effect. Historically during economic crises, both parties have been quick to extend federal funds to the jobless. This time, however, all but two Republicans—Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe—balked, demanding cuts elsewhere to pay for the measure. Said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell: "What we do not support, and we make no apologies for, is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control." [See which industries give the most to McConnell.]
Democrats are using GOP objections as campaign fuel, especially given the Republicans' push to extend the Bush administration's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the wealthy. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin took the Senate floor a week ago to point out that extending the Bush tax cuts would add approximately $670 billion to the federal debt over 10 years, versus the $34 billion cost for the six-month extension of the federal unemployment assistance program (which gave those who have exhausted 26 weeks of state benefits a further 73 weeks of aid). [See a gallery of editorial cartoons on the economy.]
To get the needed votes, Democrats dropped billions in tax breaks and other job-related measures contained in earlier versions of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can expect similar resistance on smaller spending bills that would help small businesses or aid states, such as the $30 billion bill to create a small business lending program, which Congress expects to vote on later this week. And there's even less likelihood now that the Senate will pass a $70 billion jobs package, which would include much of what was cut from the jobless-benefits bill. [See where Reid's campaign cash comes from.]