The Senate surprised quite a few people in Washington today when it voted to proceed on a bill to temporarily extend emergency unemployment benefits. Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting to get the measure over a key procedural hurdle.
But it was only the first step, and the president is applying pressure to keep it moving.
For Democrats, extending unemployment benefits is a top legislative priority — with the added political benefit of playing up their populist message and painting Republicans as uncaring. And this morning, it seemed to be going right on script: Senate Democrats went to the floor and beat up on their Republican colleagues as if the bill was destined to hit a partisan road block.
"Failing to restore emergency assistance would not only [be a] crushing blow to the long-term unemployed, but it would be a blow to our economy," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who accused Republicans of "callously turning their backs on the long-term unemployed."
But then, thanks to a bare minimum of Republican support, the bill actually got enough votes to move on to the next step. An hour later, President Obama spoke from the East Room of the White House with a group of unemployed Americans standing behind him. With a different outcome in the Senate, the event could have turned into an attempt at shaming congressional Republicans. Instead, the president attempted to build on the bill's momentum.
"Congress should pass this bipartisan plan right away, and I will sign it right away, and more than one million Americans across the country will feel a little hope right away," Obama said. "And hope is contagious."
About 1.3 million Americans saw their unemployment benefits end abruptly last week, when the federal emergency unemployment insurance program — started during the recession — expired. Without congressional action, advocates say, tens of thousands of people will lose benefits each week.
Katherine Hackett, an unemployed nursing home administrator from Connecticut, is one of them. Her benefits stand to run out Feb. 22. She has two sons who are in the military and wrote a letter to the president telling him about her struggles.
"Unemployment benefits have been absolutely essential to cover my bare necessities," she said as she introduced Obama at today's event. "I am not just sitting home enjoying the good life. My cuts include heating my house to 58 degrees, wearing a hat and a coat to stay warm because oil is expensive. I have lost weight because food is expensive."
President Obama said he was grateful for the Senate action and urged the House to do something too. "Letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong," he said. "Congress should make things right."
There's a disagreement about precisely how to do that. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been saying for about a month that any extension of benefits would have to be paid for and include a job-creation initiative of some kind. In a statement today, he said that the president has offered no such plan.
Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed that sentiment on the Senate floor. "Yes, we should work on solutions to support those who are out of work through no fault of their own," he said. "But there is literally no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation without also finding ways to create good, stable, high-paying jobs — and also trying to find the money to pay for it."
The White House doesn't see it that way. Press Secretary Jay Carney says Congress should pass a clean short-term extension, just like the bill that cleared a hurdle in the Senate today, "and thereby create the time here in Washington for further discussions about how to move beyond the three months."
The bill likely faces another procedural vote in the Senate before it can move to final passage. Republicans may be less willing to move it along without securing spending cuts in exchange.