WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats broke through a Republican filibuster Tuesday and pressed to restart jobless benefits for 21/2 million Americans still unable to find work in the frail economic recovery. The Democrats won by the single vote of a senator sworn in only moments earlier.
Senators voted 60-40 to move ahead on the bill, clearing the way for a final vote Wednesday in the chamber.
The recovery from the long, deep recession has produced relatively few new jobs, and jobless benefits for millions of people began running out seven weeks ago as Congress hit an impasse over whether the $34 billion cost of a new benefits extension should be paid for with budget cuts or added to the $13 trillion national debt.
Democrats emphasized the plight of the unemployed and argued that putting money in the pockets of jobless families would boost economic revival.
"This bill is about jobs because unemployment insurance goes to people who will spend it immediately," said Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.). "That would increase economic demand. And that would help support our fragile economic recovery."
But the numbers are far smaller than last year's $862 billion stimulus legislation. Republicans have blocked Democratic add-ons, such as aid to states.
"It's too small to have any noticeable impact on the economy's growth rate," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, of Holland, Bucks County. "But the benefits do provide an important safety net for people during these difficult economic times."
Many Republicans have voted in the past for deficit-financed benefits extensions. But with the deficit well in excess of $1 trillion, they now say it should be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
"We've repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And we are ready to support one now," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). "What we do not support - and we make no apologies for - is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control."
After Tuesday's vote, President Obama assailed Republicans for "obstruction and game playing" and promised to redouble his efforts to win enactment of legislation to help small businesses and cash-starved states and to renew an expired middle-class tax cut.
The jobless-benefits fight is looming as an issue for the midterm elections, with Democrats assailing Republicans as harshly seeking to deny benefits to the almost five million jobless people whose six months of state-paid benefits have run out. The measure provides federally financed extensions that allow the chronically jobless up to 99 weeks of benefits averaging $309 a week.
But Republicans cast themselves as standing against out-of-control budget deficits, a stand that's popular with their core conservative supporters and the tea party activists whose support they're courting.
The filibuster-breaking vote came moments after Democrat Carte Goodwin was sworn in to succeed West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who died last month at 92. Goodwin was the crucial 60th senator needed to defeat the Republican filibuster.
Two Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, voted to end the filibuster. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democrat to break with his party and vote to sustain it.