Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to vote against cloture in the Senate Thursday evening, thus dooming H.R.4213, the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010, to fail and not make it to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote — again. Nelson issued a statement Tuesday explaining his position on the bill, which he also voted against in its larger form during last Thursday’s cloture vote. Writing of national deficit spending, Nelson reiterated the Republican position of not adding to the national debt with unemployment benefits extensions, which is the chief GOP opposition to the legislation. Ben Nelson also advocated that when unemployment benefits legislation is passed, and he believes that it should be, said benefits should not go to states that have been fiscally irresponsible with other funds provided them by the federal government.
Thursday night saw H.R.4213 go down in a 58-38 vote. Although the official vote read that the measure missed gaining cloture by two votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) cast a “no” vote in a procedural move to ensure that he could resubmit the bill at a later date. If the measure had received 59 votes, Reid’s vote would have made the 60 necessary to pass the motion. However, only 58 votes, including two Republican votes (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine) fell short, and Reid took the opportunity to ensure that the bill would get a chance at resubmission.
But Ben Nelson’s party defection was critical. It would have been the deciding vote, getting the bill through to the Senate floor. But Nelson, basing his opinion on fiscal policy of the state of Nebraska and attempting to not add to the national debt, held out casting his lot with 37 Republicans. Three other Republicans abstained from voting.
According to Ben Nelson’s thinking, the unemployment benefits are necessary but they should be paid for in the legislation, not added to the national debt. He noted in his statement that Nebraska had held off use of funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and used them only as an emergency relief for the state’s beleaguered unemployed. Noting that the state of Nebraska did not use the funds for a year, Nelson posits that there is extra money left in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and that money could be used for the unemployment extensions.
In short, Senator Ben Nelson took the Republican position — pass the legislation but only if it is paid for and does not add to the national debt. It is not an altogether bad position to take. However, given the Democrats constant chipping away at the Democratically-sponsored bill to get Republican support, GOP intransigence has become a target. Senator Ben Nelson, by joining the opposition to the overall bill and any unpaid-for standalone measure, made himself part of that target.
Although Nelson’s objection to the current legislation that would increase the national debt by around $30 billion makes sense, he speaks from a position of relative distance from the problem. Nebraska has a 4.9% unemployment rate, nearly one-third that of states like Michigan and Nevada and half that of states like Ohio and North Carolina.
What those percentages do not speak to is the actual number of unemployed in the states on a set scale, but on a scale commensurate with the number of workers in the state. For instance, Nebraska’s 4.9% unemployed equates to less than 49,000 unemployed. However, a state like Ohio, which reflects a 10.7% unemployment rate, does not show just over 100,000 unemployed, which would be the case if one were to be working with an equal scale. Ohio, having a much larger population and a much larger workforce, has just over 640,000 people drawing unemployment benefits. So it would be somewhat easier for a senator in Ben Nelson’s position to be able to laud his state’s frugality and fiscal responsibility and their call for a balanced federal budget, but a little more difficult for a senator such as Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to do the same (although George Voinovich, a Republican, has staunchly voted against every version of H.R.4213 as well).
But Ben Nelson may become the victim of being singled out simply because he’s the only Democrat voting against a bill that contains an unemployment benefits extension provision. In fairness to the senator, there are nearly 40 Republican senators that have consistently voted against the same legislation and for the same reasons (predominantly).
In the end, it is doubtful whether or not an unemployed person in Nebraska or Ohio that has had their unemployment benefits suspended really cares whether or not their unemployment benefits are paid for by reallocating monies targeted for other programs or by future higher prices due to a current rising national debt. Their concerns are considerably more immediate. And it might do elected representatives on both sides of the political aisle some good to realize that people living in the now of lost jobs, few prospects for getting others, lost homes, defaulted mortgages, and repossessed vehicles, are not as particularly concerned with future elections and future deficits.
Most of the unemployed, including those receiving unemployment benefits and those that have reached their benefits and/or extension limits, are simply worried about getting to that future.