Senate advances bill to restore benefits for long-term unemployed

A bill that would restore benefits to the long-term unemployed cleared its first hurdle when six Senate Republicans voted with the Democrats to limit debate. The measure would extend unemployment benefits to 1.3 million Americans for three months while lawmakers work on a long-term deal. Kwame Holman reports.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Senate took action to extend emergency unemployment insurance today.

But as NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports, many challenges still remain before benefits are restored.

MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 60, the nays are 37.

KWAME HOLMAN: The drive to restore benefits to the long-term unemployed cleared its first hurdle this morning, as the Senate voted to proceed with debate.

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid argued millions of people need the help, and so does the economy.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Americans use their unemployment benefits to buy food and fuel at gas stations, to pay the landlord or to purchase a child a coat. That's why every dollar we spend on unemployment benefits, I repeat, the economy grows by $1.50.

KWAME HOLMAN: Six Republicans sided with the Democrats in voting to limit debate on the bill. It provides up to 47 weeks of federal unemployment benefits after state offerings are exhausted. The payments had averaged $300 a week when the program expired Dec. 28.

This bill would restore benefits to 1.3 million Americans for three months while a longer-term deal is worked on. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he still wants to see the $6.4 billion cost offset. One way, he suggested, is to eliminate new health care subsidies for the poor by delaying the requirement they get coverage.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: I would like to propose that we be allowed, that my side be allowed to offer an amendment to pay for these benefits by lifting the burden of Obamacare's individual mandate for one year and take care of our veterans who were harmed by the recently agreed-to budget deal.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reid was quick to knock down McConnell's proposal, while leaving the door open to spending cuts elsewhere.

HARRY REID: He wants to pay for them by whacking Obamacare. That's a nonstarter. So if they come with something that's serious, I will talk to them. But, right now, everyone should understand, the low-hanging fruit is gone.

KWAME HOLMAN: All of that as President Obama met with people who've lost their jobless benefits. He welcomed the Senate vote, but said it's just a first step.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: All they have agreed to so far is that we're actually going to be able to have a vote on it. They haven't actually passed it. So we have got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay. And we need the House of Representatives to be able to vote for it as well. And it's -- that's the bottom line.

(APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: That may not be easy. In a statement, Republican House Speaker John Boehner warned, even if it passes, the Senate bill has little chance of reaching the House floor.

He said: "Another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for, but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan."

Nonetheless, Senate Democrats pushed forward for a second key procedural vote some time this week.