By Marina Koren
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."