Senators slug it out while unemployed suffer

WASHINGTON — A protracted partisan U.S. Senate skirmish has left hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans without unemployment benefits — an impasse that Democrats leaders are hoping to break this week.

They have their work cut out for them.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Almost five weeks after the House passed legislation to extend insurance benefits to the growing rolls of the long-term unemployed, upper-chamber leaders continue to haggle over Republican amendments. Not only do GOP leaders want to alter the way the bill is funded, but they’re insisting that a handful of politically charged amendments also get consideration, including provisions to de-fund ACORN and keep illegal immigrants out of the workplace. Since the start of the deadlock, more than 125,000 Americans have lost their unemployment insurance benefits.

It’s a GOP version of the maneuvering that surrounded the new federal Hate Crimes Act, which passed last week as an amendment to a major defense appropriations bill. Republicans threatened a filibuster, but eventually some, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe, broke ranks. Democrats attached the hate crimes amendment to the defense bill after nearly a decade of frustrating unsuccessful attempts to pass it over shifting Republican objections.

Now the stalemate over unemployment funding is frustrating Democratic leaders, who twice this month have attempted to pass the extension, only to be rebuffed on the Senate floor. The GOP strategizing this time has left a growing number of jobless Americans and their advocates indignant that lawmakers would make political hay out of their misfortunes in the middle of the worst employment crisis in a generation.

“Unemployed workers across the country are devastated and dismayed by the failure of the U.S. Senate to extend their lifeline,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “It’s shameful and callous.”

The deadlock has been something of a surprise. When the House brought up an unemployment insurance extension bill last month — a proposal granting an additional 13 months of benefits to high-unemployment states — it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The vote was 331 to 83.

Senate Democrats are pushing a more generous bill, extending benefits by 14 weeks nationwide, with an additional six weeks for those in states where unemployment rates have topped 8.5 percent. The bill applies only to the future, meaning those whose benefits expired before passage would not be eligible for backpay. The Senate is scheduled to vote Tuesday afternoon on a procedural move to begin consideration of the bill.

Standing in their way, however, are GOP leaders who want to attach a series of controversial — some say unrelated — amendments. Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), for example, are pushing separate provisions to ensure that ACORN doesn’t receive federal funds. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have offered amendments related to the Wall Street bailout. And Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wants to make permanent the controversial E-Verify program, which screens newly hired workers in order to weed out illegal immigrants.

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