The unemployment rate in Florida and the nation remains depressingly high, few private sector jobs are being created and the Consumer Confidence Index plummeted again Tuesday. Yet Congress callously refuses to assist Americans most desperate for help. Senate Republicans, including Florida Sen. George LeMieux, blocked a comprehensive bill last week that included an extension of unemployment benefits and other badly needed assistance. The House on Tuesday could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to quickly pass just the unemployment benefits, so it will try again as early as today. Floridians who cannot find work in this terrible economy should not be sacrificed to score political points on the federal deficit.
LeMieux joined other Senate Republicans and Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska last week in blocking consideration of a bill that included the extension of unemployment benefits through November. More than 1.2 million jobless Americans already have seen their benefits expire this month. Studies show cash from unemployment benefits is usually spent quickly, because the recipients have to eat and pay bills and are in no position to save. So while concerns about the federal deficit are valid, it makes no sense to cut off benefits now to families struggling to survive in a fragile economy that needs more money - not less - circulating through it.
The extension of unemployment benefits was not the only important provision derailed by the Senate. The bill also was expected to be amended to extend COBRA health care subsidies for workers who were laid off after May 31. Those subsidies are particularly critical in Florida, which is one of 11 states where the average COBRA premium for family health coverage is more than the average unemployment benefit. The bill also included additional money for Florida and other states to help cover increased Medicaid costs. The Legislature already has included $260 million in the 2010-11 budget on the reasonable assumption that Congress would act responsibly and provide the money. Instead, the result of the Senate's inaction would be to force more families to turn to Medicaid or hospital emergency rooms for health care - and increase Medicaid costs for the states without sending them additional money.
While Republicans grabbed headlines about opposing deficit spending, the reality is that all of the Senate bill's provisions were paid for except for the unemployment benefits extension, which cost $33 billion. With roughly 34,000 Floridians a week running out of unemployment benefits and few jobs available, this state cannot afford for Congress to waste the rest of the summer in a partisan fight over the federal deficit. Tackling the deficit will require a thoughtful, comprehensive approach that features a mix of spending cuts and additional revenue sources. Holding the unemployed hostage is not the way to do it.
The House acted just as irresponsibly Tuesday when it failed to approve a stand-alone extension of unemployment benefits through Nov. 30 by the necessary two-thirds vote. The only recourse now is for House Democrats to slow down and bring the bill back as early as today by following rules that require a simple majority vote for approval. Then the Senate will have to see the light. Until Congress acts, jobless Floridians will continue to struggle to pay bills and hold on to their houses in an economy where there are virtually no jobs to be had.