Americans working more for less
By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress begins what promises to be another highly combative year on Monday with a showdown over a White House-backed bid to renew unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans.
The battle will kick off a 2014 drive by President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats to stem a growing gap between rich and poor.
The Democrat-led Senate plans to escalate the fight in coming weeks by bringing up for a vote a bill to increase the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour since July 2009. Democrats want the minimum wage to rise over three years to $10.10 and then be indexed to inflation in the future.
“We are trying to catch up with what the American people have known for years — that they are working more for less,” Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island said in an interview.
Reed is a leading advocate of a minimum wage increase and, along with Republican Senator Dean Heller, of Nevada, is sponsoring a bill to restore jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans and prevent thousands more from soon losing such aid.
The Reed-Heller measure would extend for three months the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which ended on Dec. 28 when its funding expired.
Signed into law in 2008 by Republican President George W. Bush, the program provided the jobless an average of $300 per week for an additional 28 weeks once state benefits ended.
Supporters argue that besides helping the unemployed, it boosts the economy as recipients quickly spend their benefit checks on essential goods, helping local retailers.
“Providing a safety net for those in need is one of the most important functions of the federal government,” Heller said in a statement.
It is unclear if legislation to renew the 2008 emergency program or increase the minimum wage will muster the needed 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to clear procedural hurdles erected by Republicans.
But if they do, both can expect a steep climb in the Republican-led House of Representatives, which rejected most of Obama’s largely liberal agenda the past three years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, on Sunday appealed to Republicans to allow the jobless benefit extension to pass.
“There are 55 of us (Democrats) and 45 of them (Republicans). It would seem to me that five Republicans in the Senate” could join Democrats to provide the necessary 60 votes, Reid said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Obama also made an urgent pitch for Congress to act. On Saturday, in his weekly address, the president said Republicans should “make it their New Year’s resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now.”
One conservative Senate Republican, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, told ABC’s “This Week” that he was not opposed to renewing the benefit. He added: “I’m opposed to having it without paying for it.”