Senate Democrats: “˜We’re All a Bit Surprised’ by Unemployment Benefits Vote

After a vote to proceed with an insurance-extension bill, Senate Democrats and President Obama trade frustration for optimism.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Jan. 7, 2014, 8 a.m.

An hour be­fore the Sen­ate voted on push­ing an un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance bill for­ward Tues­day, it ap­peared that the Re­pub­lic­an votes the Demo­crats needed wer­en’t there. When six votes ma­ter­i­al­ized, just enough to reach the 60 re­quired for pas­sage, Demo­crats seemed al­most un­pre­pared to cel­eb­rate rather than slam.

“I think we’re all a bit sur­prised,” said Sher­rod Brown of Ohio dur­ing a press con­fer­ence with oth­er Sen­ate Demo­crats. The vote opens the bill, which would ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits that lapsed for 1.3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans at the end of 2013 for an­oth­er three months, up to de­bate.

Rhode Is­land’s Jack Reed, a spon­sor of the bill, at­trib­uted his sur­prise to “be­ing Ir­ish” and “al­ways ex­pect­ing the worst.” He said he must “per­son­ally thank” Dean Heller of Nevada, the bill’s Re­pub­lic­an spon­sor. Heller said Monday that passing the le­gis­la­tion is “the right thing to do.”

Sen­ate Demo­crats praised Tues­day’s bi­par­tis­an ef­fort. For Brown, the show­ing is an in­dic­a­tion of fu­ture com­prom­ise. “I think it means good news for a min­im­um-wage in­crease down the road,” he said.

For some Demo­crats, clear­ing Tues­day’s pro­ced­ur­al hurdle seemed too easy. “Are [Re­pub­lic­ans] go­ing through a charade to show they really, really want a bill, but they just can’t come to an agree­ment?” Chuck Schu­mer of New York wondered. “We hope this is a good-faith ne­go­ti­ation.”

The bill could come up for an­oth­er vote in the Sen­ate this week but not be­fore hours of ne­go­ti­ations, most of which will fo­cus on how to pay for the $6.4 bil­lion ex­ten­sion. “That’s a lot easi­er said than done,” Schu­mer said.

The bill’s fu­ture in the House, if it makes it there, re­mains un­clear. Speak­er John Boehner, who has ob­jec­ted to the ex­ten­sion as is, will in­sist on cut­ting costs else­where to find the money to fund more be­ne­fits. In a state­ment after the vote, Boehner said: “An­oth­er ex­ten­sion of tem­por­ary emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits should not only be paid for but in­clude something to help put people back to work.”

This le­gis­la­tion also serves as a start­ing point for Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­por­ted fo­cus of his up­com­ing State of the Uni­on ad­dress: in­come in­equal­ity. Dur­ing a speech after the vote, flanked by un­em­ployed cit­izens, the pres­id­ent didn’t skip a beat of op­tim­ism, spelling out his philo­sophy in terms bound to make his crit­ics cringe.

“We make this prom­ise to our fel­low Amer­ic­ans be­cause when times get tough, we are not a people who say ‘you’re on your own’; we’re people who be­lieve we are all in this to­geth­er,” he said, later adding a thinly veiled tagline for 2014, “Hope is con­ta­gious.”

Contributions by Brian Resnick