Congress is one House vote away from resuming unemployment payments to millions of people whose benefits have lapsed as the nation suffers through a wretched job market.
President Barack Obama is set to sign the bill as soon as Congress can ship it to him. The Senate broke through months of stalemate in passing the measure Wednesday by a 59-39 vote. The House was expected to pass it around midday Thursday.
Some 2.5 million people who have been out of work for six months or more and have seen their jobless benefits lapse would receive back payments within a few weeks.
Obama promised to sign the measure quickly once the House acts and denounced the “weeks of parliamentary roadblocks by a partisan minority” that had stalled approval in the Senate.
“Americans who are working day and night to get back on their feet and support their families in these tough economic times deserve more than obstruction and partisan game-playing,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday night.
The measure is what remains of a Democratic effort launched in February to renew elements of last year’s stimulus bill. But GOP opposition forced Democrats to drop $24 billion in aid to state governments to help them avoid layoffs and higher taxes.
They also dropped efforts to renew a popular package of expired tax cuts and a 65 percent health insurance subsidy for the unemployed, while a $10 billion House measure to give grants to school districts to avoid teacher layoffs fell flat in the Senate.
Under best-case scenarios, unemployed people who have been denied jobless benefits because of the partisan Senate standoff can expect retroactive payments as early as next week in some states.
At issue are jobless payments averaging $309 a week for almost 5 million people whose 26 weeks of state benefits have run out. Those people are enrolled in a federally financed program providing up to 73 additional weeks of unemployment benefits.
About half of those eligible have had their benefits cut off since funding expired June 2. They are eligible for lump-sum retroactive payments that are typically delivered directly to their bank accounts or credited to state-issued debit cards.
In states like Pennsylvania and New York, the back payments should go out next week, officials said. In others, like Nevada and North Carolina, it may take a few weeks for all of those eligible to receive benefits.
Democrats have become more aggressive in attacking the GOP for opposing the measure, which has been stripped down so that it’s essentially limited to a $34 billion, six-month renewal of unemployment insurance for the chronically jobless.
Republicans say they support the benefits extension but insist any benefits be financed by cuts to programs elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Maine GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were the only Republicans to support the bill Wednesday.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to break with his party to oppose the bill.
Democrats tout the economy-boosting effect of unemployment checks since most beneficiaries spend them immediately, and they say paying for them with cuts to other programs dilutes the stimulative effect.
“Extending unemployment insurance isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do for our economy,” said Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Economists say the measure will probably have a modest beneficial effect on the economy. It represents less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the size of the $14.6 trillion economy, and is far smaller than last year’s $862 billion stimulus legislation.