Unemployment Extension Clears Senate Test, Help May Be Coming For Job-Seekers

An unemployment extension moved one step closer to reality this morning, passing a key Senate vote and offering at least a ray of hope to the 1.3 million job-seekers who had benefits suddenly cut off a few days after Christmas.

In a 60-37 vote, six Republicans sided with the Democratic majority in the Senate in voting to open debate on a bill that would create a limited unemployment extension, bringing back benefits for a three-month period.

The benefits cut off on December 28 were part of the federal emergency unemployment extension, for job-seekers who have been out of work for more than the initial 26-week period covered by the first "tier" of benefits.

By allowing debate to open on the bill, the Senate clears the way for a final vote — which is expected to be a close one. But Democrats almost unanimously support the unemployment extension and with 55 Democrats in the Senate, the bill looks likely to pass that legislative body.

"There are people really hurting," Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid told the Los Angeles Times, lauding Tuesday's Senate vote. "We have a country where not everyone's benefiting from what's going on."

The average weekly unemployment benefit is a little less than $300.

However, the unemployment extension faces a major roadblock in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans and where Republican Speaker John Boehner has said he opposes the plan to help the country's long-term unemployed.

The three-month extension is projected to cost $6.4 billion, or less than 0.002 percent of projected federal spending for fiscal 2014, as reported by the National Priorities Project. But Republicans argue that the cost of the unemployment extension must be offset by a corresponding cut somewhere else in the federal budget.

"I want us to get on the bill so we can talk about an offset to pay for it," Republican Susan Collins of Maine, one of the six Republicans to vote in favor of bringing the unemployment extension bill to the Senate floor, told CNN.

The other five Republicans to join Democrats in the vote were Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Arkansas, and Rob Portman of Ohio. Most are considered "moderate" Republicans, not aligned with the hard-right views that have come to dominate the party in recent years.

That hard-line thinking was summed up by Fox News commentator Steven Hayes on Monday, who derided those Republicans who opposed the unemployment extension on budgetary grounds as "wimpy."

Republicans, Hayes said on the conservative Fox channel, should make a "moral argument" against helping out-of-work Americans with an unemployment extension, and that all extended benefits should be abolished "forever."