Next Up on Unfinished Senate Agenda: Unemployment Insurance

Once Democrat Carte Goodwin is sworn in Tuesday to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd, Senate Democrats will have the votes to try again to extend unemployment insurance to the jobless.

Washington – For congressional Democrats – especially in the often-gridlocked US Senate – this week marks a sprint to wind up a large, unfinished agenda in time to sway midterm elections.

Big-ticket items range from energy and campaign-finance reform to decisions over expiring Bush-era tax cuts, war funding, and 12 spending bills for fiscal year 2011, which begins Oct. 1. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court, with a full Senate vote expected later in the week.

With the swearing-in on Tuesday of Democrat Carte Goodwin to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Democrats say they have the 60th vote needed break a Republican filibuster and approve a long-stalled $34 billion extension of unemployment benefits.

Highlighting the unfinished Senate agenda in his weekly address on Saturday, President Obama charged Republicans with “filibustering the nation’s economic recovery” and making a stand “on the backs of the unemployed.” Most Senate Republicans oppose the measure on the grounds that Democrats have not identified offsetting spending cuts to pay for it.

“We’re all for extending unemployment insurance. The question is, when are we going to get serious … about the debt?” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We recently passed a $13 trillion cumulative deficit threshold. When are we going to get serious about this? This administration has been on an incredible spending spree.”

Back in February, when maverick Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky launched a one-man bid to block a $10 billion, temporary extension of eligibility for unemployment insurance, 78 senators opposed him, including 19 of his GOP colleagues. But since then, Senate Republicans, with the exception of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, have rallied around the theme of reining in federal deficits, even at the expense of unemployed constituents.

“There’s bipartisan support for the idea of helping the unemployed. The Democrats missed a great opportunity to pass a bill showing that we could also control costs,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina.

At the same time, Republicans say there is no need to offset the cost of extending the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, now set to expire Dec. 31. If these cuts expire, the highest income tax bracket jumps from 35 percent to 39.6 percent; the lowest, from 10 percent to 15 percent. The top rate for dividends, now 15 percent, runs up to 39.6 percent. The top rate for taxes on capital gains rises from 15 to 20 percent. The estate tax, which dropped to zero for 2010, reverts to a top rate of 55 percent.

“We believe that the problem is not that we tax too little but that we spend too much,” Senator McConnell said Sunday.

Mr. Obama campaigned on a pledge to extend the Bush tax cuts for families with incomes less than $250,000 a year and for individuals earning less than $200,000 – a measure that Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation estimates will cost $300 billion annually.