The Senate Thursday adjourned until April 12 without extending unemployment insurance benefits — which expire for some jobless Americans at the end of the month — after Democrats rejected Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s demand that they pay for the aid by redirecting federal funding or cutting spending.
The Senate voted 49-to-39 to adjourn without the extension of benefits, with four Democrats joining 35 Republicans in voting against. Another 12 senators, split evenly among Republicans and Democrats, did not vote.
Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, blocked the Democrats’ bill from coming to the floor for a vote, after Democrats rejected a Republican effort to pay for the $10 billion in benefits with unspent money from the $787 billion stimulus bill.
Coburn said in a nearly hour-long speech on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon that to bypass the pay-as-you-go law signed by President Obama in February – which Democrats wanted to do for the fourth time since then by declaring the expenditure an emergency – would be “immoral.”
Senate Republicans said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had approached House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, with a bipartisan proposal to extend jobless benefits for two weeks and pay for it as Coburn wanted, but that she rejected it. But Pelosi and Reid spokespersons both said that was untrue.
“Senator Coburn has decided to stand in the way of Americans receiving needed benefits. The House passed unanimously a 30-day extension and any claim that there was an agreement reached in the Senate on a shorter bill is noting more than spin by Republicans,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami, who accused Coburn of “grandstanding.”
Coburn said he agreed that as the nation deals with 9.7 percent unemployment “we ought to be helping those people,” but said that giving aid to the jobless was “less good” than starting to make tough choices about paying for government expenditures, which he said is “absolutely necessary.”
“What I don’t agree with is doing those good things on the back of our grandchildren,” Coburn said.
The reason, he said, is because the nation is piling up debt faster than it can pay for it – the national debt currently stands at $12.7 trillion – and risks losing its status as a dominant nation “like the Athenian Empire.”
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, accused Coburn of “using the unemployed as political pawns.”
“Once again, Republicans are obstructing an attempt to provide urgently needed unemployment insurance benefits for millions of hardworking Americans,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
“Rarely, if ever, do we pay for extensions of unemployment insurance benefits,” Manley told reporters.
Coburn blocked the Senate from passing the benefits by objecting to its introduction on the Senate floor. To introduce any measure there must be unanimous consent from all senators.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, proposed that the Senate pay for the unemployment insurance with unused funds from the $787 billion stimulus bill. But Senate Democrats voted down that idea by a party-line vote of 59-to-40.
Less than a month ago, Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, blocked the last one-month extension of benefits for five days, and was vilified for doing so.
Coburn, however, is a different political animal. Though he is often lampooned by some on the left, he is regarded with a grudging respect by many in the Senate, and also made clear from the beginning Thursday that his principal goal is to make sure the expenditure is paid for.