The highly anticipated legislation that will extend unemployment insurance benefits, prevent doctors from absorbing cuts in Medicare payments and provide money to struggling state governments passed a significant hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday. It gained momentum after 60 new tax breaks for individuals and businesses were added to the bill.
The unemployment insurance alone — to provide weekly unemployment checks averaging above $300 to people whose core 26-week benefit package has run out — will cost $66 billion through December. In some states people are eligible to receive benefits for up to 99 weeks.
The bill demonstrates the difficulty Democrats face as they focus on jobs. It doesn't include new ideas for boosting jobs, but instead reprises elements of last year's $862 billion economic stimulus bill, which is earning mixed reviews from voters. Simply extending those provisions has produced a far more expensive measure than a separate so-called jobs bill that Democrats hope to soon send to President Barack Obama. That measure would boost highway spending and give tax breaks to companies that hire the unemployed and could clear the Senate for Obama's desk this week.
At a gross cost of about $148 billion, Tuesday's measure illustrates the extraordinary cost of the unemployment safety net as the economy inches out of the recession. Democrats say the unemployment benefits inject demand into the economy and say renewing the tax cuts helps preserve existing jobs.
The measure closes $29 billion of tax loopholes to help defray its cost, including one enjoyed by paper companies that get a credit from burning "black liquor," a pulp-making byproduct, as if it were an alternative fuel.