Millions of out-of-work Americans are poised to lose critical benefits due to the opposition of one Republican senator who would only agree to an extension of those benefits if they come out of federal economic stimulus dollars, according to the Senate’s top Democrat.
The Senate adjourned for the week with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) continuing to block Democratic legislation that would extend unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits for those who will start losing them on Sunday. The Senate’s other Republicans have chosen to uphold Bunning’s filibuster.
The unemployment insurance provides the unemployed with some income while they seek work, while the COBRA benefit pays for health coverage.
The U.S. unemployment rate stands at a decades-high 9.7 percent will lose their benefits during the first couple of weeks of March. By May, nearly 3 million people would be left without benefits. Furthermore, if the COBRA subsidy enacted as part of last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is not extended, thousands of families will lose access to affordable health care, according to an estimate by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
“We cannot stop supporting workers who desperately seek jobs but in many cases simply cannot find them,” Solis says. “For many households with an unemployed worker, these benefits are the only thing that allows them to keep paying the bills and supporting their families as they look for new employment.”
In remarks on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the failure to extend benefits “irresponsible” and “immoral.”
“The issue before us is this: this coming Sunday night -– less than 72 hours from now -– tens of thousands of Nevadans and more than a million Americans who rely on unemployment insurance and health benefits will lose them,” Reid said this week in an attempt to proceed to a vote on his bill that would have extended benefits. “Unemployment is rampant in every single state in the country. In Nevada, it’s 13 percent. So many of those unemployed lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
“Those opposed to helping> our fellow citizens at their time of greatest need want to talk about process. But if you can’t afford to feed your children, you don’t care about process one bit,” Reid adds. “If we don’t act, those benefits will expire –- but the need to buy groceries doesn’t expire. Those benefits will expire, but the need to heat their homes and put gas in their cars doesn’t expire.”
Bunning, who is retiring this year, claims Reid’s benefits extension would pile onto the federal deficit — an accusation Reid flatly denies. Reid goes on to say that, in reality, Bunning’s objection is politically motivated — that Bunning really wants the benefits extensions to come out of the funds set aside for economic stimulus in the Recovery Act. Bunning and most other Republicans rail against the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed last year at the urging of President Obama.
“The bill that we passed today is fully paid for. No deficit spending whatsoever. In fact, everything was paid for. Every part of that was paid for,” Reid says. “Passing that bill, there isn’t a cent of red ink. Now, it’s my understanding that, with this short extension that we’ve tried to get done today, that my friend from Kentucky believes that it should be paid for by taking the money out of the stimulus funds and paying for it that way.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.