President Obama hailed the 60 U.S. senators who voted to extend federal unemployment benefits Tuesday -- without paying for the $34 billion tab -- for standing on the side of "working families."
The measure, which had been blocked by Republicans, would distribute unemployment benefits to some 2.5 million recipients who have been out of work for 26 to 99 weeks. GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine voted in favor of the measure. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., joined the GOP filibuster. The House is expected to pass the measure so that Obama can sign it.
No doubt Americans who have seen their benefits run out are relieved that their unemployment checks will resume -- and be paid retroactively.
For the rest of us, however, the Tuesday vote felt like another hit in the wallet -- with Democrats not even hiding the fact that they would rather see the unemployed go without unemployment checks than cut $34 billion from the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
The Senate might have passed and Obama might have signed a "pay-as-you-go" rule that required Washington to pay for new spending earlier this year. But that doesn't mean that Democratic leaders feel in any way bound by the pay-go spirit.
Au contraire, not paying for the unemployment extension somehow had become a moral imperative for Obama and Company. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., had proposed paying for an earlier (and costlier) iteration of the bill by rescinding $38 billion in "unobligated" stimulus money and imposing an across-the-board cut of 5 percent on non-defense government agencies. His measure failed. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., proposed paying for the measure "with $40 billion in cuts (reducing unneeded government printing, cutting non-essential government travel, and eliminating bogus government bonuses) and revenue raisers (selling unneeded government property and collecting unpaid taxes from federal employees)." Destined to fail.
I know. It's not as if going after unspent stimulus money or "unneeded" spending requires great political courage. It doesn't.
Which makes the Democrats' refusal to entertain the notion all that much more baffling -- unless they wanted to accuse Republicans of holding the unemployed "hostage," as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., so delicately put it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed there was "no debate" in the Senate about extending unemployment -- "everyone agrees that we should."
The issue, he noted, "is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control."
But as the controversy grinded on, some Republicans have begun to question whether it makes sense to pay unemployment benefits for nearly two years. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., wondered if unemployment benefits provide "a disincentive" to finding work. A Wall Street Journal editorial pointed to studies that found that longer benefit periods mean that recipients stay on unemployment longer.
So the least D.C. Democrats could do is pass an extension bill that doesn't add to the deficit.