So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

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The Senate scattered to the four winds this afternoon, leaving unfinished work on a $9.2 billion bill to extend for one-month unemployment benefits. This will not make for a restful two-week recess for exhausted lawmakers as some of the benefits begin to run out April 5 – the day after Easter. Barring any kidnapped girls or celebrity deaths, I can just imagine cable network news directors, desperate for stories, fixating on the plight of furloughed Transportation Department workers or people who have, for the second time in two months, lost their unemployment benefits. Unfortunately for those folks, the Senate is not scheduled to reconvene until April 12 at which time Democrats expect to pass another extension that will apply the benefits retroactively.

Sound familiar? Yes, this is exactly what happened last month with Senator Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican. So why the repeat performance?

Republicans want the bill to be paid for. In the last week they’ve attached a version to the reconciliation amendments and tried straight passage of a substitute bill, both of which used stimulus funds to pay for it –Dems voted down both. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, is the main person objecting to the bill on the grounds that this is the fifth unpaid for bill Dems have passed this year and all this debt is mounting on his grandchildren. “The American people and the rest of the world understand that our debt and deficits are as much of an emergency as our unemployment rate,” Coburn said in a statement Friday. “The American people also understand the best unemployment benefit is a job.  An economy with as much debt as our simply can’t create jobs at the rate we need them.”

Democrats argue that after spending trillions of dollars for President George W. Bush’s wars mostly financed by debt, their priorities are even more pressing: helping the victims of the economic crisis. They deem this emergency spending and resent what they say is GOP obstructionism at the expensive of the most needy. “Thousands of Nevadans and millions of Americans depend on the critical assistance provided by unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits. That’s why it is extremely disappointing Republicans would not agree to a short-term extension of these benefits this evening,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement last night. “It is our hope Republicans will realize the damage they are causing and stop standing in the way of this much-need assistance for out-of-work Americans.”

Essentially the argument comes down to ideological differences about what creates jobs: the GOP believes lower taxes and smaller deficits will spur the economy; Democrats believe that using the stimulus money to pay for the bill is robbing the very thing – maybe the only thing – that is creating jobs in this economy. And both sides see this train-wreck as a political win. Democrats get to champion the little guy and highlight the latest evidence of how Republicans are the “Party of No.” The GOP gets to reclaim the rusty mantle of fiscal conservatism. I guess the only losers here are the people losing their benefits and their jobs.