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Votes extend jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — Congress last week passed a bill to extend jobless benefits and insurance subsidies for the unemployed until late May and early June.

The Senate voted 59-38 for the bill, which also authorizes higher payments for doctors who treat Medicare patients. It also extends a flood insurance program.

The House followed suit, passing the $18 billion bill by a 289-112 vote and sending it to President Barack Obama, who signed it into law Thursday.

Passage of the bill ended a partisan showdown that had stalled it for weeks, temporarily stopping unemployment checks to more than 200,000 people.

The bill extends COBRA health insurance subsidies until the end of May, along with doctor payments. Unemployment payments would continue until June 2.

With the short-term legislation in effect, lawmakers continued to negotiate a bill that would carry the programs through the rest of the year.

During the debate Republicans argued the new spending should be offset by cuts elsewhere, or else the federal deficit would grow even deeper.

"The question we ought to be asking is, ‘What is so wrong with trying to pay for what we are doing?’" said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "We have enough fraud, waste, and duplication in the federal government to pay for this the whole rest of the year."

Democrats said the need to extend benefits qualified as an emergency that did not have to be offset. They also accused Republicans of being insensitive to people who are out of work.

"We should balance the budget as quickly as we possibly can," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "But we should not balance the budget while in the grips of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Doing that would only put more people out of work."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the bill. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted against it.

In the House, Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted for the bill.

Before the bill passed the Senate, three amendments by Coburn that sought to identify ways to pay for the benefits extension were defeated.

In one amendment, Coburn said the government has $676 billion in the Treasury that has been borrowed but not spent. He proposed to redirect $18 billion to pay for the extension in unemployment benefits.

"Here is a fairly painless way — just more efficient management of the money we have — of paying for this needed program," Coburn said.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, responded the amendment was "irresponsible." He said the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are required to budget upfront to buy equipment that takes years to build.

"I am certain everyone … knows that a ship is not built in a year," Inouye said. "I hope everyone knows that a hospital is not built and equipped in a year. I hope everyone knows that satellites are not built and launched every year."

The amendment was killed, 51-46. Ensign voted for it and Reid voted against it.

Contact Stephens Media Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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