The Senate passed a bill extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans on Wednesday, ending a long floor fight over a bill that has become a top Democratic talking point.
The bill is expected to pass in the House today. The president is expected to sign it shortly after.
It would restore federal unemployment benefits for more than 2.5 million jobless Americans who have lost them since the end of May and extend them through Nov. 30, allowing people without jobs in high-unemployment states to collect up to 99 weeks of benefits.
The 59-39 vote was all but assured by a cloture vote Monday, which ended a series of failures by Democrats to assemble 60 votes to overcome GOP objections to extending benefits if the cost was not offset.
Those votes represented legislative losses for Democrats, but, they hope, political wins. The majority has used a barrage of news conferences, floor speeches and statements to tout the differences between the parties over unemployment benefits as a leading example the choice Democrats hope to offer voters in November.
Democrats say that approach offers their best hope of avoiding an election where voters oppose them due to high unemployment rates without considering GOP plans.
In highlighting the dispute, Democrats made extending the benefits go from a routine action that drew relatively little attention last year -- amid issues like health care --to a closely watched issue.
They have seized on statements by Republicans, such as Senate Minority Whip Kyl, who has said spending on unemployment insurance should be offset while extending the Bush-era tax cuts should not be.
According to congressional observers and aides, the fight over unemployment has dragged on for so long because both parties saw political benefit in their position. Democrats embraced the jobless, while Republicans touted deficit reduction.
Republicans initially avoided rallying around Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who earlier this year insisted the benefits should not be extended on an emergency basis without an offset, and backed down when Democrats highlighted the dispute. But GOP senators later said they should have stood firm due to growing concern with budget deficits.
Senate Republicans have insisted they support extending benefits in a deficit-neutral manner. They note Democrats repeatedly rejected Republican motions to extend benefits with the cost offset with money from last year's stimulus.
Passage of the extension came after the chamber rejected five Republican motions to force votes on amendments, including their latest proposal, offered by Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., to tap stimulus money to offset the cost.
Democrats said they planned to highlight GOP votes for a motion by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to tie extension of benefits to a repeal of the estate tax. Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., were among 43 votes for the amendment.
The proposal would have cost "upwards of a trillion dollars to pay for a tax cut, spending for wealthiest Americans versus helping two and half million people who are out of work through no fault of their own, so we certainly are going to remind people of that," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
This article appears in the July 24, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.