Senate poised to extend jobless benefits

SENATE POISED TO EXTEND JOBLESS BENEFITS…. Last month, Senate Democrats tried three times to pass extended unemployment benefits, and in each instance, Republicans (and Ben Nelson) refused to allow the Senate to vote on the measure. If all goes according to plan, the fourth time will be the charm this afternoon.

Around 2 p.m. (ET), Carte Goodwin will be sworn in to temporarily fill the vacancy left by the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D), bringing the Senate Democratic caucus to 59 members. Literally minutes later, the leadership will bring the unemployment bill to the floor. With Maine’s Olympia Snowe (R) and Susan Collins (R) set to break ranks, that should leave the majority with the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican obstructionism.

With President Obama raising the heat on the issue yesterday, congressional Republicans spent the afternoon insisting they’d just love to extend aid to jobless Americans, just as soon as Democrats offset the costs elsewhere.

“The president knows that Republicans support extending unemployment insurance, and doing it in a fiscally responsible way by cutting spending elsewhere in the $3 trillion federal budget,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said in a statement Monday. “At a time of record debt and deficits made worse by Washington Democrats’ massive spending spree, that’s the right thing to do and the right way to do it.”

Of course, Republicans have spent the last few weeks arguing that hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy don’t have to be paid for, so the GOP requirement that $33 billion in aid for jobless Americans be offset with cuts elsewhere seems a little silly.

But it’s also worth keeping in mind that what Boehner and his cohorts are demanding has no modern precedent. In recent decades, extended unemployment benefits have either been considered emergency spending, and therefore added to the deficit, or offset with tax increases. Arthur Delaney did a nice job digging up the details:

…Congress has, in fact, offset the cost of unemployment benefits — but Congress has never substantially cut spending elsewhere in the budget to fully pay for them as Republicans now want to do.

For instance: In 1991, the elder President Bush signed a bill for 13 additional weeks of jobless benefits at a cost of $5.5 billion, fully offset with tax hikes. The New York Times reported at the time that the extension would be “financed through changes in the tax law that will require higher corporate estimated tax payments, increased taxes on lump-sum pension distributions and a one-year elimination of the personal exemption for high-income taxpayers.”

It’s almost amusing to think how much more conservative Republicans are now than in 1991, when such a deal was still possible.

Also note, we’re already in unprecedented territory: “Congress has never allowed extended unemployment benefits to lapse at a time when the national unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent.”

Sixty senators should put things right in about six hours.