Finally, there is some relief ahead for millions of jobless Americans who are surviving on unemployment benefits. The Senate broke a partisan deadlock Tuesday over extending benefits through November, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign the extension into law by week's end. Now Congress needs to nurture a very tenuous economy by sending more aid to Florida and other states that have been counting on the help to avoid layoffs and deeper spending cuts.
The Senate deadlock over unemployment benefits was broken after the new Democratic senator from West Virginia was sworn in to succeed the late Robert C. Byrd. Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins once again were the only Republicans who joined with Democrats to help jobless Americans who have been trying to stay afloat. The $34 billion legislation will help ease the pain for nearly 5 million unemployed workers, including the 35,000 Floridians a week whose benefits are expiring. For Republicans to use the jobless as pawns in a partisan fight over deficit spending only made life more difficult for struggling families and ignored economic realities.
Unemployment rates decreased a bit in Florida and 38 other states in June, but other economic indicators suggest the nation is far from out of the woods. New residential construction declined in June nationwide, and recent earnings reports from banks and several big companies have been disappointing. In Florida, the unemployment rate has dropped for the third straight month, but more than 1 million residents are searching for work and the BP oil spill has created further uncertainty. More jobs are being lost in Tampa Bay and around the state as local governments cut positions to reflect declining property tax revenues.
Those are just a few reasons why Congress should send more stimulus money to the states. A $10 billion education bill aimed at easing cuts to public schools has passed the House but is not expected to clear the Senate. Slightly more promising is another attempt at a pared-down package that includes $15 billion to help Florida and other states cover Medicaid costs. There was some indication Tuesday that the Senate could muster the 60 votes needed to break through a procedural roadblock, and the Medicaid money could help the Sunshine State avoid millions in spending cuts.
The Obama administration and Congress need to tackle the federal deficit in a comprehensive way with both spending cuts and new revenue. But first they must ensure that the fragile economy not slip backward and that Americans hurting the most have a modest safety net. Extending unemployment benefits is a necessary step, and the next one should be sending more Medicaid money to states that already are cutting spending to the bone.