Jobless benefits bill takes small step in an uphill climb

WASHINGTON — Legislation to resume long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million jobless Americans cleared a key hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, though final passage in the chamber, and ultimately the House, remains difficult.

The 60-37 vote, among the first since lawmakers returned Monday, came as six Republicans joined Democrats to advance a bill extending benefits by 90 days.

In a White House appearance shortly after the vote, President Obama criticized Republicans who contend that unemployment benefits sap workers' motivation to look for new jobs.

"The long-term unemployed are not lazy," he said. "I can't name a time when I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job."

Republicans quickly fired back, charging that Obama's economic policies — and particularly the passage of his healthcare overhaul law — are to blame for continued economic woes. And they prepared to offer their own conservative policy prescriptions.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, is expected to propose a "major restructuring" of federal anti-poverty programs in a speech Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's dramatic 1964 call to launch a war on poverty.

The Democratic-controlled Senate was not initially expected to get enough votes Tuesday to advance the unemployment bill and avoid a Republican filibuster.

Most Republican senators, who are trying to keep the 2014 election campaign focused on the problems with Obamacare, oppose providing more unemployment insurance unless the $6-billion cost of another three months of aid is offset by budget cuts elsewhere.

But six Republicans, all moderates or from states with high unemployment rates, decided to join Democrats in voting to open debate on the bill rather than be blamed for obstructing it.

Among them was Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who said he would ultimately oppose the bill if his party was not allowed a chance to amend it. Along with offsetting the costs, he wants changes to "differentiate between those who are legitimately looking for work and can't find it and those who have turned this into a lifetime welfare system."

Republicans are considering ways to pay for the legislation, and if a bipartisan solution is found it could give the measure momentum. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he would consider a bill if $6 billion in cuts were identified.

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered an amendment Tuesday that would have extended unemployment insurance in return for a one-year suspension of the healthcare law's requirement that all individuals carry health insurance. It was rejected by Democrats.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) suggested covering the costs with revenue gained by preventing immigrants who are in the country illegally from claiming a child tax credit.

It remained unclear whether the two parties could broker an agreement. Hoping to bridge the divide, Obama personally called at least two Republican senators, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to discuss options, sources said.

And the president's chief of staff promised to "run the traps," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to see what was possible. But Reid sounded skeptical that common ground was within reach.

"Whacking Obamacare," Reid said, is "a nonstarter.… If they come with something that's serious, I'll talk to them."

Federal unemployment insurance expired on Dec. 28, leaving long-term unemployed Americans without the emergency income stream. The federal benefits kick in after workers exhaust an initial 26 weeks of insurance provided by most states. The aid has regularly been renewed by Congress, but more recently the parties have tangled over the costs.

Some economists believe that extending emergency unemployment insurance helps the economy because it allows the long-term unemployed to keep spending money, a view taken by the administration.

Outside conservative groups reject that approach. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action both urged senators to oppose the Senate measure and warned that their votes would be counted in the groups' annual scorecards. Heritage Action explained in a note to senators that unemployment benefits were not a "free lunch."

The woman who introduced Obama at the Tuesday event, Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Conn., said she used unemployment benefits to cover her mortgage payment and healthcare while she continued to look for work.

The mother of two sons in the military, Hackett said she cuts corners to stay within her budget. She wears a jacket to stay warm inside and heats her house only to 58 degrees "because oil is expensive," she told the audience.

Obama said the country had a moral responsibility to respond. "When we've got the mom of two of our troops who is working hard out there but is having to wear a coat inside the house," the president said, "we've got a problem."

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