By Stephen Koff
The U.S. Senate this morning moved a step closer toward extending federal unemployment benefits for those out of work more than 26 weeks. Both of Ohio's U.S. senators -- Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman -- voted yes.
"The Senate came together on one of the coldest days of the year to take the first step toward ensuring that unemployed Americans aren't left out in the cold," said Brown.
"People want to work," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. "People who have lost their jobs after decades with a company are knocking on doors every day."
This was not a vote on the actual bill, but, rather, a vote to end debate so the $6.4 billion benefits-extension bill can receive a yes-or-no vote, which is likely later this week. Previous authorization for federal benefits expired Dec. 28, potentially affecting 1.3 million out-of-work Americans, including 128,000 Ohioans, depending on when their existing benefits were scheduled to run out.
But it took 60 votes to end debate, five more than the Democratic caucus has even when every member is present. And one Democrat, Mark Begich of Alaska, was not able to be there. Portman and five GOP colleagues -- Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Dan Coats of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - voted with the Democrats to pass the motion 60-37.
Even if Portman and other Republicans vote no on the final bill, Democrats have the support to pass it with a simple majority of 51 votes.
Most Republicans said they opposed moving forward because the cost is not offset with spending reductions elsewhere. This will only add to the nation's debt, Republicans said. They also said the country needs new pro-growth economic policies that would promote innovation by cutting taxes and federal regulations.
Portman has shared those concerns. He said that he voted to end debate in the hope that a spending offset is agreed upon before the bill gets a vote on final passage.
"As Congress considers extending emergency unemployment insurance benefits again, my focus will continue to be on how to get Ohioans back to work by improving the economy and creating the opportunity for more people to find a job," Portman said in a statement released immediately after he voted. "I voted to proceed with the debate over how to address unemployment insurance with the hope that during the debate the Senate will agree to pay for the extension and work to improve the unemployment insurance program so it works better to connect those unemployed with available jobs.
"Not paying for the extension adds to the nation's historic debt, causing more uncertainty for the economy and making it harder to create jobs," Portman said. "We must also include reforms that help equip the unemployed with the skills they need to access jobs currently available, through worker retraining reforms like those in the bipartisan CAREER Act I have introduced with Senator Michael Bennet."
Bennet is a Colorado Democrat. His bill with Portman would target training for jobs that go unfilled for a lack of skilled workers, and add a pay-for-performance standard to federal job-training programs.
The average weekly unemployment check in Ohio is for $318, according to Brown, and the maximum is $413. Brown said that more than 790,000 Ohioans received unemployment benefits at some time between 2008 and 2013.
"Each week, about 1,877 more Ohioans exhaust their state benefits," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, Democrat of Warrensville Heights, in a Facebook post after the Senate advanced the bill. She cited the U.S. Department of Labor as her source.
Fudge, however, has not had a chance to vote on this latest extension bill. The House of Representatives still must take it up, and Speaker John Boehner, Republican of West Chester, has refused to do so unless the extended benefits are paid for elsewhere in the budget.
Boehner issued a statement saying, "Far too many Americans are still unemployed in President (Barack) Obama's economy. For each of them, it's a personal crisis that we cannot overlook. Getting these people back on their feet starts with a strong safety net -- six months of unemployment benefits -- that we continue to have in this country. But the ultimate solution to joblessness is more jobs."
At the White House, Obama said the economy is, in fact, improving, with businesses creating more than 8 million jobs "since we hit bottom." The auto industry "has gone from bust to boom," he said, and manufacturing and housing are rebounding. He cited stock market and retirement-account improvements, the "promise of energy independence," more efficient spending on health care and deficit reductions.
Standing in front of an audience that included people who have lost jobs, Obama allowed that "we've got more to do to make sure that all Americans share in that growth." And that means, he said, helping Americans who still need unemployment benefits.
"These aren't folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen," Obama said. "They're out there actively looking for work. They desperately want work. But although the economy has been growing, and we've been adding new jobs, the truth of the matter is, is that the financial crisis was so devastating that there's still a lot of people who are struggling, and in fact if we don't provide unemployment insurance, it makes it harder for them to find a job."
Before the Senate vote, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said his fellow Republicans would support the motion if they could get an amendment to delay the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate -- the requirement that all Americans must be insured or face fines -- for a year.
McConnell cast the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, as an economic burden that is hampering job creation, one of several burdens for which he blamed Obama and Democrats. Citing the ACA, the 2009 economic stimulus bill and tax increases, McConnell said, "All of it was done in the name of helping the little guy." Yet what has resulted, he said, "is a mess."
Democrats said McConnell's proposal was preposterous, noting that he and other Republicans have tried to dismantle the ACA every chance they get. Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said the ACA has assured that no one can be denied insurance coverage if he or she has a pre-existing medical condition, a benefit he said helps all Americans.
"Wow, what a tradeoff: 1.3 million people get unemployment benefits, over 300 million Americans" lose that insurance protection, Durbin said.
Said Schumer, "I see what's going on here. Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle know the power of this issue but they really don't want to vote on it. So they are putting impossible logjams in the way of it."
Portman and a few Republican colleagues, however, removed today's logjam.
Ohio's unemployment rate is 7.4 percent. At the height of the recession, from July 2009 through February 2010, it was 10.6 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But after dropping to 6.7 percent in December 2012, it has nudged up.
At issue are federally funded benefits. State benefits, financed by taxes on employers, cover the first 26 weeks, but Congress has provided additional benefits during the downturn -- at one point during the recession, allowing for benefits that could last up to 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. That extra-long-term provision expired but the federal government still allowed for an extra 37 weeks in states like Ohio. That extra 37 weeks started expiring for those who hit the maximum -- 63 weeks on unemployment insurance, counting the state benefits -- on Dec. 28.
More than 52,000 Ohioans have lost those benefits already, according to Brown, the Ohio Democrat. Under the bill being considered, benefits would be extended for three more months.
Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga said his organization is "activating working families around the state" to let Portman and other Ohio members of Congress know how important it is to extend the payments. Failing to do so will devastate affected workers and hurt the state's economy, he said.
Burga and Niles-area Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan held a press call during the Senate vote to discuss the hardships they said 128,000 Ohio families will face if the payments are discontinued because they can't find jobs. They said failing to extend the benefits will cost the state an additional 6,500 jobs in 2014 because of money the unemployed workers won't spend without those payments.
Ryan said he's not optimistic Republicans in the House of Representatives will schedule a vote on the issue, but said he hoped his efforts would help to "bring awareness to the Speaker and the Republican delegation in the House to at least bring this up for a vote."
"Hopefully, as people move out of the holidays and pay a bit more attention to what is going on, I would hope the United States has the wherewithal to take care of the people suffering the most," said Ryan.