WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate passed legislation Monday to renew a program of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed that expired last December, but the bill faced an uphill climb in the House of Representatives, where majority Republicans are generally opposed.
The 59-38 vote comes ahead of November's mid-term congressional elections, when all House seats and one-third of Senate seats are contested. Republicans, who hope to also gain control of the Senate, are reluctant to hand any big legislative victories to President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
The White House-backed bill would retroactively restore benefits that were cut off in late December, and maintain them through the May. Officials say as many as 2.7 million jobless workers have been affected since the law expired late last year. If renewed, aid would total about $256 weekly, mostly going to men and women who have been off the job for longer than six months.
Passage came as a handful of House Republicans urged Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on the Senate bill or one like it.
Whatever the bill's fate in the House, Senate Democrats have taken steps to follow their action with a test vote on a bill to strengthen "equal pay for equal work" laws. That measure includes a provision giving women the right to seek punitive damages in lawsuits in which they allege pay discrimination.
Next up in the Democratic attempt to gain ground during the election year will be a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It is now $7.25 an hour. While that also faces stiff opposition from Republicans, several states are considering raising their minimum wage.
As for the jobless benefits bill, Boehner pronounced it "unworkable," and a blog posting by his aides quoted the Republican as saying there was "no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by (Majority) Leader (Harry) Reid" would help create more private sector jobs.
The drive to renew the lapsed program comes as joblessness nationally is slowly receding, yet long-term unemployment is at or above pre-recession levels in much of the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it accounts for an estimated one-third or more of all jobless individuals.