WASHINGTON – Democrats in the Senate won an initial skirmish Monday to restore unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of jobless people despite Republican criticism that it would add $9 billion to the nation’s debt.

The 60-34 vote killed a GOP filibuster against debating the measure, which would extend jobless benefits through May 5 along with short-term extensions of several other lapsed programs.

Senators in both parties blamed each other for allowing the programs to lapse last week, leaving several hundred thousand people who have been out of work for more than six months without federal benefits averaging $335 a week.

Republicans blocked the measure last month. Monday’s vote buys time while House-Senate talks continue on a far larger measure to extend them through the end of the year.

At issue is unemployment compensation for more than 400,000 people whose benefits lapsed but who would have been eligible to reapply for additional weeks of compensation if the program’s authority had not ended April 5. More than 5 million people continue to receive the extended benefits, but 200,000 people each week stand to lose them if the impasse continues.

Several other programs have also lapsed, including federal flood insurance, higher Medicare payment rates for doctors and generous health insurance subsidies for people who’ve lost their jobs.

In practice, the expiration of the programs means that the newly jobless aren’t eligible to sign up for health insurance subsidies but that people currently covered under the so-called COBRA law retain the benefit. People living in flood plains can’t sign up for flood insurance, while the Medicare program has delayed payments to doctors rather than impose a 21 percent cut.

Monday’s vote was a good sign for Democrats who want to extend the benefits without cutting spending elsewhere in the government’s $3.7 trillion budget to pay for the program. But Democrats could have a more difficult time gathering 60 votes on whether to waive pay-as-you-go budget rules, and it could fall to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to decide as early as Tuesday whether the measure will advance.

Collins and three other Republicans — Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and George Voinovich of Ohio — voted Monday to advance the short-term measure. Collins was the only Republican to break with her party last month to protect the yearlong extension of jobless benefits from a procedural move that would otherwise have killed it.

Republicans blocked the temporary measure last month, saying it should have correlating spending cuts so as to not increase the deficit. But 21 Republicans had voted for an earlier temporary measure covering March after Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., initially blocked it single-handedly and caused a public relations disaster for the party.

Now, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is leading the charge against the measure, which would add $9 billion to the deficit. “My goal is to get it paid for,” Coburn said.

“I don’t think that one could contend that somewhere in the federal budget we can’t find $9.5 billion over the course of the year which could be used to pay for these benefits,” said GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.

But Democrats countered that extended unemployment benefits have always been financed through the deficit and that providing them to jobless people running short on cash is a good way to boost the economy.


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