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$18 billion jobless benefits bill goes to Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) - Just hours after Congress passed an $18
billion bill to restore unemployment benefits for the long-term
unemployed, President Barack Obama made it the law of the land.
The measure comes as welcome relief to hundreds of thousands of
people who lost out on the additional weeks of compensation after
exhausting their state-paid benefits. They now will be able to
reapply for long-term unemployment benefits and receive those
checks retroactively under the legislation.
The bill also restores full Medicaid payments to doctors who
were threatened by a 21 percent cut and refloats the flood
insurance program.
Obama signed the bill when he returned to the White House on
Thursday night from fundraisers in Miami and a speech earlier in
the day at Cape Canaveral, presidential spokesman Bill Burton said.
Obama thanked Congress for passing the temporary extension,
saying it was critical to help struggling families make ends meet.
"Millions of Americans who lost their jobs in this economic
crisis depend on unemployment and health insurance benefits to get
by as they look for work and get themselves back on their feet,"
Obama said in a statement. "But as I requested in my budget, I
urge Congress to move quickly to extend these benefits through the
end of this year."
The legislation cleared both houses of Congress on Thursday
night. The House passed the bill 289-112 just two hours after it
emerged from the Senate on a 59-38 vote that capped an unusually
partisan debate. Republicans largely chose to take a stand against
the legislation for adding to the $12.8 trillion national despite
backing it by wide margins in December and again recently.
"It increases the deficit by $18 billion, a cost to be paid for
by future generations," said Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. "This
legislation is yet another unfortunate example of business as usual
in our nation's capital."
Several other popular programs had also expired, including
federal flood insurance, higher Medicare payment rates for doctors
and generous health insurance subsidies for people who have lost
their jobs.
The situation became more urgent Thursday afternoon when
Medicare announced that it would start paying doctors' claims at a
21 percent lower rate. That won't be necessary now.
Thursday's measure provides up to 99 weekly unemployment checks
averaging $335 to people whose 26 weeks of state-paid benefits have
run out. It's a temporary extension through June 2 that gives House
and Senate Democrats time to iron out a measure to fund the program
through the end of the year.
Fewer than 1 in 3 House Republicans voted for the measure. Just
three Senate Republicans did. The sole Democrat to oppose it was
longtime budget hawk Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee.
The bill also extends a program created under last year's
economic stimulus bill that gives unemployed people a 65 percent
subsidy on health care premiums under the so-called COBRA program.
On successive votes earlier in the day, Democrats narrowly
turned back two amendments by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would
have paid for the measure over time by cutting spending and raising
almost $10 billion in revenues with a variety of Democratic-backed
ideas to tighten the tax code. One of Coburn's amendments was
killed by a 50-48 vote.
The topic of providing additional weeks of jobless benefits in
the midst of bad times had been regarded as routine. But with
conservative voters and tea party activists up in arms about the
deficit, conservative Senate Republicans upset about the deficit
have twice caused interruptions of jobless benefits and other
programs.
In February, Jim Bunning, R-Ky., single-handedly blocked an
extension of unemployment benefits in an unsuccessful bid to force
Democrats to pay for them. The measure passed on a 78-19 vote after
Republicans were smacked by a public relations backlash.
But many Republicans believe it was a stand worth taking,
including Coburn, who blocked a vote last month on another
short-term extension.
By the time Senators returned from a two-week recess on Monday,
only four Republicans - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine,
Scott Brown of Massachusetts and George Voinovich of Ohio - voted
with Democrats to defeat a GOP filibuster of the bill. Only
Voinovich, Collins and Snowe voted for the bill on Thursday.
Democrats said it was the wrong topic for Republicans to take a
stand on the deficit after voting for tax cuts, wars and a new
Medicare drug benefit without paying for them.
"They seem to have discovered fiscal responsibility when it
comes time to extend unemployment benefits but not when it came to
paying for tax cuts for the rich and the Iraq war," said Rep.
Sander Levin, D-Mich.
Twenty-one Senate Republicans voted for the earlier extension
last month and House GOP leaders opted against even forcing a vote.
But Thursday's vote came after senators spent two weeks among their
constituents - and as thousands of tea party activists came to
Washington to protest on deadline day for filing taxes.
"I think people spent two weeks out listening to people about
spending and debt," Coburn said.
The House has twice this year approved short-term extensions of
jobless benefits and other expired programs.
The various programs in the longer-term legislation represent
much of the Democrats' remaining agenda on job creation. One of the
reasons the short-term legislation was needed is that House and
Senate Democrats are having difficulty resolving their differences
on how to pay for a package of expired tax breaks for individuals
and businesses.
Other elements of the jobs agenda such as cash to build roads
and schools and help local governments keep teachers on the
payroll, remain on the shelf for a lack of money to pay for them.
Democrats said deficit-financed jobless benefits not only needed
to help people unable to find work but that they are one of the
most effective ways to pump up the still-struggling economy.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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