WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are poised to break a partisan stalemate today over extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who have been jobless for six months or more, but the fight seems certain to continue playing out as a defining issue in the midterm elections.
One day before a crucial procedural vote to provide added unemployment assistance through November, President Barack Obama appeared in the Rose Garden on Monday with three out-of-work Americans to hammer Republicans for blocking the extension until now by insisting, over Democratic objections, that the $34 billion costs of the benefits not be added to the deficit.
"The same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle-class Americans," Obama said.
Democrats have been one vote short of pushing the measure through the Senate. But today, a new Democratic senator from West Virginia will be sworn in to succeed Robert C. Byrd, who died last month, putting Democrats in position to overcome the Republican blocking tactic and bring the bill to a final vote.
As a political matter, the issue has appeal to both parties, especially in an election year in which each party needs first to motivate its own base.
For Republicans, it provides a concrete vehicle for pushing the argument that the government's response to the recession has been wasteful and ineffective, that the growing national debt requires deep spending cuts and Obama is guilty of ideological overreach.
For Democrats, it is an opportunity to charge Republicans with being obstructionist and out of touch with the pain caused by an economic downturn that began on the Republicans' watch.
Obama's tough attack Monday signaled the White House's confidence that it has the upper hand, legislatively and politically. Recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans favor giving the long-term unemployed more financial help even if it adds to the deficit.
"To govern is to choose and this is a clear choice — you either support extending benefits for people who are out of work or you don't," said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. "There are obvious political ramifications to that difference."
With many voters expressing growing alarm at the mounting national debt, Republicans say standing against an unemployment extension that would add to the deficit could energize their voters and help them regain some of the reputation for fiscal responsibility they have lost in recent years. They also accused the White House of misleading the public about the Republican position on added jobless pay.
"The president knows that Republicans support extending unemployment insurance, and doing it in a fiscally responsible way by cutting spending elsewhere in the $3 trillion federal budget," Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said in a statement Monday. "At a time of record debt and deficits made worse by Washington Democrats' massive spending spree, that's the right thing to do and the right way to do it."
The additional money for those who have exhausted their standard 26 weeks of jobless pay has been tied up since the beginning of June but had become a growing point of contention since February when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., initiated a one-man filibuster against a temporary extension of the safety-net spending.
While Republicans eventually relented and allowed an additional month of unemployment compensation, the party began to coalesce around the position that further extensions should be paid for with offsetting cuts in other spending, leading to the current stalemate.
Most Democrats contend that deficit spending is acceptable — even, in economic terms, necessary — to help not only the jobless but the economy as a whole. Their argument is unemployed workers will spend all or nearly all of their benefits on goods and services that help support other jobs.
"At what point do we pivot and start being concerned about our children and our grandchildren?" Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Sunday on CNN. "There is no way in the world on a trillion-dollar budget this year we can't find the money to pay for an extension of unemployment insurance, something we're in favor of."
Besides the support of Carte Goodwin, the West Virginian to be sworn in today to succeed Byrd, Democrats are counting on the votes of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, the two Maine Republicans, to reach the minimum 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of a Republican filibuster.
To ease objections, Democrats have scaled back the unemployment proposal, which originally was to extend through December and included billions of dollars in health insurance subsidies for the unemployed.
If the Senate is successful in approving the extension, the House will have to vote on the measure before it is sent to the president, but Democrats have sufficient votes in the House.