Susan Davis, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate agreed Tuesday to move forward with a three-month extension of expired jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, which affects an estimated 1.3 million Americans.
Six Republicans voted with 54 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, which includes two independents, to overcome a 60-vote threshold to begin consideration of bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.
The bill would reinstate unemployment benefits that expired Dec. 28 because Congress failed to act before the holiday break.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, was not present for the vote. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., surprised Democrats by providing the key vote to advance the bill.
Most Republicans opposed the bill because the $6.4 billion cost of the extension is not offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. Some Republicans also view the benefits as a deterrent for recipients to look for jobs. Outside conservative groups, including the anti-tax Club for Growth, also oppose the extension and urged lawmakers to oppose it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from offering an amendment to delay for one year the requirement for individuals to purchase health care under the Affordable Care Act in exchange for GOP support.
Democrats argue that unemployment benefits provide critical economic stimulus by boosting consumer spending as well as much-needed relief to Americans who have found it hardest to recover from the economic downturn and should not have to be offset. "This is basic. This is humane," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
The next steps are uncertain. The Senate still has to pass the bill, and it faces considerable opposition in the GOP-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he could consider an extension if the cost is offset by budget cuts elsewhere.
President Obama will keep pressure on Congress to act at a White House event Tuesday with some of the Americans affected by the benefits' expiration. Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council, defended the unemployment benefits program Monday as critical to addressing lingering unemployment from the recession, and he noted that the system not only requires recipients to look for work, but is structured to taper off as unemployment rates fall.
The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was enacted under the George W. Bush administration in 2008 to provide relief for the long-term unemployed who had exhausted standard unemployment benefits.