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Senate Votes to End Debate on Unemployment Extension Bill - Final Passage Likely on Wednesday

November 2, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

After more than a month of partisan delay, the Senate voted this evening to wrap up debate of H.R. 3548, the unemployment benefits extension bill. The bill is now set for easy passage later in the week, possibly late on Tuesday night but most likely on Wednesday.

Today’s vote actually did more than just move the bill forward, it also changed it in significant ways. The vote, which passed 85-2, was on a cloture motion for a bipartisan substitute amendment that would add two expiring stimulus programs to it — the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit and loss carry-back accounting privileges for businesses. Both programs would be extended and bulked up a bit by the amendment.

Under the amendment, the bill’s unemployment benefits provisions would stay the same as what the Senate has been discussing for weeks. It would extend unemployment insurance benefits by 14 weeks in all states and by an additional 6 weeks for 20 weeks total in states with a three-month average unemployment rate above 8.5 percent.

The House passed a weaker version of the unemployment bill on September 22nd and Senate Democrats — in light of the worsening jobs situation — have been trying since then to pass their version as quickly as possible. But Republicans in the chamber have slowed down the process by repeatedly insisting that the Senate place votes on unrelated, controversial amendments dealing with issues such as funding for ACORN, illegal immigration and the Wall Street bailout. Democrats have been denying the GOP’s request for the votes because they could introduce new, contentious issues that would slow down the process of reconciling the House and Senate bills and getting a final version signed into law.

Last week, when the Democrats decided to plow ahead with the bill using a slower parliamentary course that would allow them to deny the Republicans their votes, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] noted that 150,000 unemployed people had exhausted their benefits since the Republicans began delaying the bill. According to statistics from the National Employment Law Project, another 7,000 people have lost their benefits each day since.

Sen. Byron Dorgan [D, ND] pointed out the irony in the delay last week: “Some of the people who are stalling the unemployment extension benefits were the same ones who rushed to the starting line last fall to see if they couldn’t hand hundreds of billions of dollars to the banks that ran this country into a ditch,” he said.

Today’s vote on cloture preemptively ends a Republican filibuster of the bill and puts a 30-hour cap on the debate before a final up-or-down vote must be taken. It also means that any amendments considered non-germane will be ruled out of order. Senate rules generally allow non-germane amendments to be proposed to bills — that’s why the Republicans were able to offer amendments on ACORN for this — but under the 30-hour cloture rule, all amendments must be directly relevant to the underlying bill. It’s unclear at this point whether or not germane amendments will be voted on.

Once the 30 hours are up, the bill as amended will go to a final vote that requires a simple majority for passage. After that, it will be sent back to the House of Representatives where it is expected to be agreed to quickly and sent to the President to be signed into law. Theoretically, all this could happen by the end of the week, but it is possible that the House action could be slowed by the health care debate that is scheduled to begin on Thursday or Friday.

The two senators who voted “no” were:

Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond [R, MO]
Sen. Jim DeMint [R, SC]

Thirteen senators abstained from voting. We’ll have that list posted shortly. Here’s the full roll call data. Ten of the abstaining senators were Republicans.

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