Jobless benefits extension blocked

GOP in House opposes the bill

By Andrew Taylor
Associated Press / November 19, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Republicans in the House blocked a bill yesterday that would have extended jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed beyond the holiday season.

An extension of benefits enacted this summer expires Dec. 1, and unless they are renewed, 2 million people will lose benefits averaging $310 a week nationwide by the end of December.

The failed measure would have extended jobless benefits through the end of February at a cost of adding $12.5 billion to the nation’s debt. Republicans opposing the legislation said the measure should be funded by cutting unspent money from last year’s economic stimulus bill.

The White House criticized Congress for failing to renew benefits with the holiday break approaching.

“I don’t think we want to leave here having fought for tax cuts for millionaires and against unemployment insurance for those that have lost their jobs,’’ spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Democrats brought the measure to the floor under fast-track rules that required a two-thirds vote to pass, so the measure fell despite winning a 258-154 majority. Republicans blasted the move, which denied them an opportunity to try to offset its cost.

“The fact is, we can both provide this help and pay for it by cutting less effective stimulus spending,’’ said Representative Charles Boustany, Republican of Louisiana. “That’s what we should be debating today.’’

Progress appeared to have been made yesterday in another spending issue before Congress. Lawmakers of both parties struck a deal to postpone a massive cut in Medicare pay for doctors.

The agreement between the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, and the panel’s top Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa, calls for paying doctors at current levels through Dec. 31, and fully offsetting the cost.

The deal, expected to be approved by the House and Senate, would stave off a 23 percent cut in doctors’ pay scheduled to take effect Dec. 1. Baucus and Grassley also pledged to work together toward a mutually acceptable 12-month postponement that could pass before the end of this year.

Doctors were threatening to stop taking new Medicare patients if the cut went through, and analysts warned that the situation would undermine the health care program for 46 million elderly and disabled. Health care for military service members, families, and retirees also would be jeopardized because Tricare payments are tied to Medicare’s.

The steep cuts are the consequence of a 1990s budget-balancing law that has failed to control Medicare costs. At the time, lawmakers devised a formula for automatic cuts as a braking system to keep Medicare spending in line. However, when costs went up, Congress usually hit the override button and postponed the cuts. That only meant reductions got bigger the next time.

For the long-term unemployed, efforts to renew benefits have bedeviled Congress for much of the year. Every recession since 1950 has featured an extended federal benefits program financed with deficit dollars. That is a precedent Democrats refused to break when battling with Republicans earlier this year to extend the program.

Republicans did not pay a political price for stalling efforts earlier this year to extend jobless benefits that provide critical help to the unemployed — including a seven-week stretch over the summer when jobless benefits were a piece of a failed Democratic tax and jobs bill.

But allowing benefits to expire in the holiday season may hurt Republicans, especially when measured against their insistence that tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers not be allowed to expire.