WASHINGTON — Efforts to extend unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans at least three months reached an impasse in the Senate on Tuesday as the legislation fell to procedural hurdles.
In back-to-back votes, Democrats — who have 53 members in the Senate — were unable to muster enough support from Republicans to reach the 60-vote supermajority threshold required to end debate and take up either of two proposals to reinstate the unemployment insurance benefits that expired at the end of December.
The first vote — on a measure proposed by the Democratic leadership that would have extended unemployment benefits for 11 months and paid for it by extending the existing 2 percent cuts to Medicare health providers by one year, through 2024 — failed 52-48. The second vote, on the original Democratic bill, which would have extended unemployment benefits for three months at a cost of $6.4 billion, failed 55-45.
An extension of unemployment benefits did not make it into the two-year budget deal passed just before Congress left for its winter recess. The emergency federal program had been a lifeline for 1.3 million jobless workers.
One of the proposed budget cuts for offsetting an extension of the jobless benefits is to tackle what Republicans have characterized as the “double dipping” of individuals receiving both disability payments and unemployment benefits. Republicans would prevent individuals from receiving both.
Democrats have their own proposal that would allow individuals to continue collecting both, but reduce the amount they receive.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has long championed measures for the disabled, blasted both proposals.
Harkin said there is a myth that people on disability can't do anything but sit around watching TV. The truth, he noted, is that the law allows them to work part-time and earn up to $1,070 a month.
He cited the case of a real Washington, D.C., resident he referred to as “Henry” who is deaf and has other health problems. He said Henry was receiving disability benefits and working part-time, then lost his job and started receiving unemployment benefits. Harkin said even the proposal by the Democrats would significantly trim back what Henry receives from the government — money that allows him to keep his head above water.
“Where is our sense of decency around this place?” Harkin said on Tuesday. “It just makes me furious because there's just so many myths and misunderstandings.”
World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.