Congressional Democrats on Wednesday stood with more than 100 jobless workers in an attempt to drum up public outrage after Republicans prevented an extension of federal unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who are out of work.
"Has the Republican leadership in Congress lost all sense of justice?" asked Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "Where is the sense of moral outrage?" he said during a news conference that resembled a revival meeting, with audience members, many wearing union T-shirts, cheering and chanting, "Pass it now."
Two million Americans face a cut off of benefits this month and by spring that number could increase to 6 million, said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Solis cited a Bush-era Labor Department study showing that every dollar of unemployment insurance that is spent generates two dollars in the economy, and said that federal benefits have never been ended during a recession when unemployment was so high.
With the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent, Democrats argue that jobless Americans are suffering due to no fault of their own. State-administered unemployment insurance provides benefits for up to 26 weeks, but the federal government can extend help for up to 99 weeks, and routinely does so during economic hardship. Congress has passed eight such extensions during the current economic downturn, most recently in July, but missed the Tuesday deadline to pass another extension.
Republicans argue that any extension should be offset by spending cuts to avoid adding to the deficit. Democrats call that hypocrisy, since Republicans are insisting on an extension of the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans without paying for them at a cost of $700 billion over 10 years
"We have to pay for unemployment insurance, we don't have to pay for tax cuts for the rich," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "Tax cuts do not create jobs. They haven't throughout the Bush administration. Unemployment insurance creates jobs and does not add to the deficit."
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told MSNBC Monday (the same day he was sworn in to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat) that Republicans do appreciate the importance of assisting Americans who can't find work.
"As long as they [benefits] are paid for," he said. "Proposals that extend benefits but just add the bill to the deficit take us in the direction of Greece and Ireland that are now imploding as economies."
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, facing pressure from constituents in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts, was floating an alternative proposal.
"The compromise bill I introduced last night would extend unemployment benefits for one year without raising taxes or adding to the national debt, and it would be paid for by using unspent federal funds, some of which have been sitting around for years," Brown said in a video released Wednesday. Brown's plan enlists the help of the Office of Management and Budget to identify unspent funds, but does not include specifics on where those loose dollars are located.
It's unclear what the next move is for either Republican or Democratic proposals. Congressional leaders have limited time left in the lame-duck session to make decisions on numerous issues, including the Bush tax cuts, set to expire at the year's end, the START arms control treaty, and legislation to fund the federal government.