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Impasse ends on jobless benefits

Senate advances bill; House expected to agree

Joe Melchionda, of Winthrop, said he had to dip into his savings and retirement accounts to pay his mortgage and other bills even before his unemployment benefits ran out last month. Joe Melchionda, of Winthrop, said he had to dip into his savings and retirement accounts to pay his mortgage and other bills even before his unemployment benefits ran out last month. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Mark Arsenault and Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats yesterday revived an extension of unemployment benefits for 2.5 million Americans, managing to break through a GOP deadlock rooted in deep disagreements over the economy.

The $34 billion bill, which is expected to win House approval with little difficulty, would extend benefits for the long-term jobless until December and make payments retroactive to early June. As many as 70,000 Massachusetts residents would have their benefits restored, state officials said, adding that they were preparing to send out checks as soon as the legislation is finalized.

In voting to advance the bill, Democrats overpowered the Republican filibuster with the help of two moderate Republicans from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the vote of newly appointed Senator Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, who was sworn in yesterday to fill the seat of Democrat Robert Byrd, who died June 28.

Barely 10 minutes after Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath of office to Goodwin, the Senate began the roll call vote to end the filibuster. Goodwin was among the last to vote, offering a soft aye and getting applause from a gallery packed with friends and supporters from West Virginia.

President Obama praised the vote as an important step toward getting aid “to millions of Ameri cans fighting to find a job, put food on the table, and make ends meet during this tough economic time.’’

The vote to overcome the filibuster was 60-40, the minimum margin Democrats needed to move the bill forward. That left one more Senate vote, requiring 51 votes for final passage, before the bill heads to the House — perhaps as early as today.

Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, who has voted with Democrats on jobs legislation and financial overhaul, stuck with Republican leaders yesterday and voted to block the extension. Brown said he opposes increasing the federal deficit to pay for the $34 billion proposal. The freshman senator had unsuccessfully proposed paying to extend benefits with unspent money from the stimulus program.

“There have been numerous proposals offered in the Senate, including my legislation, to extend unemployment insurance by stopping the spending spree in Washington,’’ said Brown.

The state’s senior senator, Democrat John F. Kerry, voted yes. “This vote was long overdue for laid-off workers hanging on by their fingernails,’’ Kerry said. “It shouldn’t have taken six weeks to get here and two and a half million workers should never have gone this long without unemployment insurance.

Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to vote no.

Tens of thousands of unemployed workers in Massachusetts would benefit from the extension.

“We’re very pleased that the Senate has moved forward to break the logjam,’’ said Joanne Goldstein, the state’s secretary of Labor and Workforce Development. “There are many people who are suffering and struggling.’’

Joe Melchionda of Winthrop counts himself among the struggling. Even with unemployment benefits, he said, he was dipping into his savings and retirement accounts to pay his mortgage, insurance, and other basic expenses. When his extension ran out last month, it blew an even bigger hole in his family budget and his nest egg.

Melchionda, 54, said he’s been looking for work since being laid off from his job as a construction supervisor at the end of 2008. He writes, phones, e-mails, and visits companies, he said. He came close to getting a job inspecting weatherization work, paying about half his old salary, but was ultimately considered overqualified. He’s taken a variety of part-time and temporary jobs, including delivering phone directories last winter.

Married, with a 10-year-old son, Melchionda said he was relieved that the Senate finally acted, but that won’t slow his efforts to find work.

“The benefits help,’’ he said, “but in order to really get back on my feet, I’m going to have to be hired. Passing the extension isn’t going to make me relax.’’

Jim MacPherson, 51, of Holbrook, laid off from a construction equipment rental firm about 18 months ago, has sent out scores of resumes, networked, and had several interviews, including two in the past week — so far without success. He called the Senate’s action “too little, too late.’’

When his benefits were cut off about a month ago, and it became unclear whether Congress would reauthorize extensions, he withdrew money from his 401(k) account, paying taxes, and penalties for early withdrawal.

“It’s frustrating,’’ said MacPherson, a father of three. “The mortgage is due, and you still have to come up with the money. The bills keep coming.’’

The fight over extending benefits not only looms large in the lives of the unemployed, it crystallizes the diverging positions among Democrats and Republicans over what ails the economy — and how to fix it — as fall elections approach.

Democrats argue that supporting the unemployed makes economic sense, because unemployment checks are likely to be spent on basic needs. “This bill is about jobs because unemployment insurance goes to people who will spend it immediately,’’ said Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana. “That would increase economic demand. And that would help support our fragile economic recovery.’’

Republicans, standing as deficit hawks, warn that the long-term effects of too much debt will cripple the nation’s recovery.

“We’ve repeatedly voted for similar bills in the past. And we are ready to support one now,’’ said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky. “What we do not support and we make no apologies for is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control.’’

The vote yesterday capped months of such battling. The benefits extension started in February as one piece of a broader jobs package that included many provisions to restore business tax breaks and increase Medicaid payments to state governments. That benefit would have provided Massachusetts with more than $600 million in aid.

The measure became stalled in the Senate and pared down versions also failed.

Boston University political science professor Graham Wilson said he thinks Republicans made a miscalculation in so strongly opposing the extension.

“Republicans have been the party of ‘no’ on a number of issues without paying a political price, but I think this was one ‘no’ too far,’’ he said. As the issue carries forward to the fall elections, “If you’re a Democrat, you portray Republicans as the heartless’’ toward the middle class.

Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said Republicans can also claim to be acting out of compassion.

“If you’re smart on the Republican side, you’ll frame the fiscal responsibility argument in terms of compassion: Don’t burden the next generation with unsustainable debt,’’ he said.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com; Robert Gavin at rgavin@globe.com.

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