Senate Republicans are playing political games with the financial lifeline for hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans. Their decision to block a $9 billion measure to extend long-term unemployment benefits for another month means nearly 400,000 people will be cut off before Congress returns from its two-week break. It is one thing to score political points by refusing to increase the federal deficit, but it should not be done at the expense of the families hurting the most.
A similar drama unfolded at the end of February when Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning blocked a 30-day extension of unemployment benefits because it required additional deficit spending. Bunning's one-man protest finally ended when he relented after being lobbied by some of his fellow Republicans fearful of appearing uncaring. But now the political calculation has shifted.
When Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn objected to the unemployment benefits extension legislation last week — effectively derailing it until the Senate reconvenes on April 12 — he had the support of a number of his colleagues, including the party's leadership.
This deficit vigilance by Republicans wasn't in evidence when President George W. Bush pushed revenue-depleting tax cuts that helped turn a budget surplus into a deficit. Or when the administration funded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through off-budget emergency supplemental bills. Or when Republicans pushed through the Medicare prescription drug legislation. But it is suddenly there in force when Senate Democrats seek to extend the safety net for Americans who lost their job in the Great Recession.
The deficit must be reined in, but not on the backs of people desperate to hold on to their homes and keep their families fed until they can find work. The Senate should immediately extend unemployment benefits when it returns to work. Then it can see who is serious about reducing the federal deficit without holding struggling families hostage.