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Published: Thursday, 3/11/2010

Jobless-aid extension approved in Senate


WASHINGTON - The Senate voted yesterday to extend key pieces of last year's economic stimulus measure, including help for the jobless and money to help financially strapped states pay for health care for the poor.

The 62-36 vote was taken over protests from conservatives who say the bill adds too much to the $12.5 trillion national debt. Six Republicans joined all but one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, in voting for the bill.

Ohio's senators, Republican George Voinovich and Democrat Sherrod Brown voted yes, as did Michigan Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin.

The vote sends the measure into talks with the House, which is wary about some Senate provisions included to defray the measure's impact on the deficit since they may want to use such "offsets" to help finance an overhaul of the health-care system.

The plight of the jobless and the political power of an annual package of tax breaks powered the measure through the Senate, even though it would add about $130 billion to the budget deficit over the next year and a half.

"The bill is not a second stimulus, but it's going to deliver badly needed relief to Americans who are hurting," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said. "It would be cruel, even inhumane, to tell these people that their unemployment benefits expire."

The measure is the second piece of the Democrats' much-touted "jobs agenda" to pass the Senate this year, with more elements promised, such as help for small businesses suffering from a credit crunch. Concern over out-of-control budget deficits are a big challenge to the agenda's success.

In fact, the bill chiefly resurrects elements of the stimulus bill that expired at the end of last year, including more generous unemployment benefits, health-care subsidies for the jobless, and Medicaid aid to cash-starved states. They have been temporarily extended twice but would again expire at the end of this month.

Democrats had hoped to finish work this week on a far smaller job-creation measure, which blends additional highway spending with new tax breaks for companies that hire the unemployed.

Now, it's looking like a final vote won't be taken until next week.

Yesterday's larger bill would provide unemployment benefits of up to 99 weeks in many states for people mired in joblessness. The measure also would prevent doctors from absorbing a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments and extends through December a generous 65 percent subsidy of health insurance premiums for the unemployed under the COBRA program, at a cost of $10 billion.

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