Senate Republicans vowed Monday that they will try to force Congress to start cutting programs to pay for new spending. Democrats promised to make the GOP suffer for making their first stand on a bill to extend the time frame that the jobless can collect unemployment benefits.
The unemployment fight has become the battleground for the spending wars, and Republicans lost the first skirmish Monday when the Senate voted 60-34 to begin debate on a bill that would spend $9.2 billion, without offsetting spending cuts, to enact a short-term extension of benefits for the jobless.
"Over the coming weeks, I assure you, Republicans will continue to give our colleagues across the aisle and our president the opportunity to live up to the president's commitment on February 13: 'Now, Congress will have to pay for what it spends, just like everybody else,' " Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, pledged on the Senate floor.
But Democrats said aid to the jobless was a curious time to take a stand, giving that most Republicans supported President George W. Bush's tax cuts and war spending, and many of them supported the Wall Street bailout in 2008, all of which contributed to the deepening federal debt.
"There's some 'Johnny-come-lately' in this chamber from people who have never come to the floor on these issues in the last decade," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.
Four Republicans joined Democrats in moving to head off a filibuster, though Republicans may still try to amend the measure.
"Families in Massachusetts and across the nation are hurting," said Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, one of the Republicans who voted against the filibuster. "There is no reason why Republicans and Democrats can't come together to provide a fiscally responsible way to extend unemployment benefits for families that need it."
Federal spending on unemployment has ballooned this year, reaching $85 billion in the first six months of fiscal year 2010, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's already nearly equal to the $87.3 billion for the entire year that the CBO projected last May.
The higher costs stem both from a higher-than-anticipated unemployment rate, which stands near 10 percent, and from extensions Congress and the president have since approved.
The Pew Economic Policy Group, in a report last week, said spending could reach $168 billion this year, which marks a giant increase over the 2005 through 2007 period, when annual federal spending on unemployment insurance was between $31 billion and $33 billion, Pew said.
Pew said that long-term unemployment - those who have been out of work for six months or more - is at its highest rate since World War II, and that 23 percent of the unemployed have been without a job for more than a year.
The House and Senate are negotiating a long-term extension of unemployment benefits, and the bill now before the Senate is a short-term stopgap.
Those Republicans looking to force a stand on spending said they were energized in February after Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, took to the Senate floor and led a one-man charge to try to force spending cuts to pay for the prior short-term extension of unemployment benefits.
That effort failed when moderate Republican lawmakers called on him to stop.
This time, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, is leading the fight. On Monday, he said it's beginning to affect U.S. foreign policy by hurting the country's leverage with China and Russia, which hold large amounts of American debt and which are also the holdouts as the U.S. seeks to impose sanctions on Iran for pursuing its nuclear program.
"We're in waters that this country has never seen before, and with this bill, if we pass this bill and we continue to pass more bills not having made the tough choices, we are steaming towards a catastrophe," he said.
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