By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House-backed bill to renew jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans narrowly cleared a U.S. Senate Republican procedural roadblock on Tuesday.
On a largely party-line vote of 60-37 – 60 were needed to prevail – the Democratic-led Senate agreed to begin consideration of the measure, which would extend recently ended benefits for three months at a cost of $6 billion.
The Senate may vote later this week on whether to approve the bill and send it to the Republican-led House of Representatives, where it may die unless there is a deal to cover the cost without increasing the federal debt.
At the White House, President Barack Obama praised the Senate for moving forward and urged swift passage so he could sign the emergency legislation into law.
“We’ve got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay,” said Obama, joined by some of the long-term unemployed, including Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Connecticut. She has two sons in the military and has had to turn down the heat in her home to make ends meet.
“When we’ve got the mom of two of our troops who’s working hard out there but is having to wear a coat inside of the house, we’ve got a problem,” Obama said.
House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, noted that he told the White House a month ago that any renewal of jobless benefits “should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work.”
“To date, the president has offered no such plan,” Boehner said in a statement.
The action kicks off what is certain to be an election-year battle over the growing gap between rich and poor.
Obama has signaled that he intends to make combating income inequality a hallmark of his second term by seeking to extend jobless benefits, increase the minimum wage, raise funding for education and revamp immigration laws.
Polls have long shown that Americans view Republicans as less compassionate toward the poor and working class than their Democratic counterparts.
Seeking to address this vulnerability, prominent Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, both potential White House contenders, plan to publicly discuss their ideas for fighting poverty this week.
The Senate bill would extend for three months the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which ended on December 28 when funding expired, stopping benefits for 1.3 million Americans.
Unless the program is renewed, an additional 2 million are expected to lose their benefits in the first six months of this year.
Signed into law in 2008 by Republican President George W. Bush, the program last year provided the jobless an average of $300 per week for an additional 28 weeks once state benefits ended.
The bill was offered by Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada.
Heller and five fellow Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents in voting to advance the bill. Backers may face another roadblock when they move to end debate and vote on passage.
Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, asked why he voted to begin consideration of the measure, said, “It’s one of those issues that goes directly to people that are hurting.”
Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois said he voted no despite a personal call from Obama. He explained that he is concerned because the bill contains no offsets and could end up hurting the nation’s and his state’s credit ratings.
“It’s not unusual for the president to call me to ask for liberal votes,” Kirk said. “I remain a fiscal conservative and he knows that.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell skewered Democrats for their “fervor” in seeking an extension of jobless benefit, noting that “they ignored the issue all of last year” and are only making a concerted effort now that the federal help has expired.
McConnell also suggested that the cost of extending the jobless program be covered with cuts in Obama’s landmark and troubled healthcare program.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid made it clear that such cuts would be a non-starter since, he insisted, they would further hurt, not help, the American people.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Caren Bohan; Editing by Douglas Royalty)