WASHINGTON — Maine’s two U.S. senators joined with Senate Democrats and several Republicans to move forward Tuesday with a bill to renew long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people nationwide, including thousands in Maine.
Sen. Susan Collins was one of six Republicans who voted to allow debate on the bill, giving Democrats the 60 votes needed in a major test vote. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also supported moving forward with debate.
But the bill’s fate is far from clear in the Senate, much less in the Republican-controlled House.
Senate Republicans who bucked the majority of their party in the 60-37 vote indicated that they expect Democrats to work with them to find a way to cover the $6.3 billion cost of temporarily renewing unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.
About 3,300 Mainers who have been unable to find work for six months or longer lost their unemployment benefits on Dec. 28, when an emergency extension expired. The debate over another extension has emerged as the first major issue of the year as Democrats and Republicans jockey for political position in November’s elections.
Maine’s congressional delegation – King, Collins, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud – supports providing extended benefits for at least another three months. Collins and King have said they believe the three-month extension should be paid for with spending cuts or offsets elsewhere.
“I understand how important unemployment insurance is to those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are searching for work but are unable to find it,” Collins said in a prepared statement. “Today’s vote to proceed provides us time to debate the bill and to find the funds that could pay for the extension of benefits.”
The 60-37 vote surprised many on Capitol Hill because Democrats had braced to fall short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster. The Republicans who supported the bill, in addition to Collins, were Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana, Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
President Obama called Collins on Monday to lobby her on the bill. Collins told reporters that she talked with the president about the need to require people who are unemployed for long periods to enroll in job training programs to qualify for unemployment benefits.
Collins has signed onto a proposal introduced by Ayotte on Tuesday to fund another three months of extended unemployment insurance by blocking illegal immigrants from claiming the Additional Child Tax Credit.
The plan would also use the savings to avert reductions to future cost-of-living adjustments for younger military retirees, a controversial cost-saving plan built into the two-year budget that Congress passed last month.
King, meanwhile, is a co-sponsor of amendments that would prohibit unemployment benefits from going to jobless millionaires or billionaires and preclude someone from receiving both disability insurance and unemployment insurance in the same month.
Since Dec. 28, jobless Americans have been eligible for unemployment insurance only if they have been unable to find work 26 weeks or less. Congress has extended the eligibility time frame 11 times since the recession began in 2008, offering as much as 99 weeks of coverage in many states.
The average weekly payout to recipients in Maine in November was $283.38, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Maine’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate that month was 6.4 percent, below the national average of 7.3 percent. About 45,500 people were unemployed in Maine in November, down from about 51,000 one year earlier.
Eight of the 11 extensions authorized by Congress were passed as “emergency” measures that did not require budget cuts elsewhere.
In a significant policy shift, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated after Tuesday’s vote that he would be willing to consider offsets for extending long-term benefits through 2014 rather than the three-month time frame in the Senate bill.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has made clear to the White House that a temporary extension must be accompanied by both budget cuts and measures to reduce unemployment.
“To date, the president has offered no such plan,” Boehner said in a prepared statement after Tuesday’s Senate vote.
Democrats have been accusing Republicans of harming unemployed workers and state economies by allowing the program to revert back to a 26-week cap on benefits. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee estimated that 1.3 million Americans lost $400 million in benefits this week; the figure for Maine’s 3,300 affected individuals was around $1 million.
Democrats on the committee, led by ranking member Sander Levin of Michigan, said the change meant that only 25 percent of unemployed workers nationwide were receiving unemployment payments. Maine’s 21 percent was the second-lowest in the nation, ahead of just New Hampshire.
“The sad truth is that the economy hasn’t yet improved to the point where it’s possible for everyone who wants a job to get one, and these numbers show how many people in Maine are still struggling to find work,” Pingree said in a prepared statement. “Letting those emergency benefits expire was just plain wrong and Congress should act quickly to extend them.”
Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said the figure of 21 percent does not match her department’s numbers.
But she said the share of jobless workers in Maine who typically receive unemployment benefits rarely exceeds 30 percent, for multiple reasons.
“Part of it is just the nature of our workforce and our seasonal economy,” she said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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