WASHINGTON, July 21 Senate Republicans on Wednesday delayed action to restore U.S. unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work the longest, prolonging a partisan standoff even though the measure is certain to pass.
Some 2.5 million jobless Americans have seen their benefits lapse since the end of May as the Senate has deadlocked over how to cover the $34 billion cost of extending them through November.
Congress is all but certain to restore those benefits by the end of the week after Democrats broke a Republican procedural hurdle on Tuesday afternoon. But Republicans appeared to be running out the legislative clock, delaying a final vote until as late as 9 p.m. on Wednesday (0100 GMT Thursday).
"Perhaps the overwhelming majority of Republicans think that since they've turned their backs on the unemployed for so many months, what's another few days?" Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said. "Perhaps they think that when unemployment goes up, their poll numbers do too."
With congressional elections looming in November, Democrats are eager to show voters they are doing all they can to bring down the 9.5 percent unemployment rate and help those struggling to emerge from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Republicans, meanwhile, are raising the alarm about a budget deficit that is expected to come in near last year's level of 9.9 percent of GDP. They say Congress should cut spending elsewhere to cover the cost of extending benefits.
Congress could have renewed the expired benefits months ago if Democrats had agreed to cut spending elsewhere, said a spokesman for Republican Senator Tom Coburn.
"Reid, and many politicians in Washington who are addicted to spending, don't want to do the hard work of choosing between funding unemployment benefits or the obscene amount of waste in the federal budget. They want both," said Coburn spokesman John Hart.
Democrats said the additional delay served no purpose other than to prolong the difficulties faced by those who are struggling to make ends meet. Nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, the highest level of long-term joblessness since the government began keeping track in the late 1940s.
"This latest move gives the partisan minority 30 more hours to stall in the Senate, but that means 30 more hours of suffering for these hard-working families trying to get by," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Eric Beech)