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Harkin Fights for Extension of Unemployment Insurance on Senate Floor

Washington, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, today delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor on the importance of extending unemployment insurance.

“Let me thank my colleague and dear friend from Michigan, Senator Stabenow, for those kind words. I know of no one who cares more deeply and works harder in this body for the average American family and workers in this country than Debbie Stabenow. She is always there thinking about how we can make their lives better and what can we do to increase employment opportunities for our working families. And the fact that she's here today leading the debate on extending unemployment insurance again shows her dedication to those hard-working men and women who make this country what it is. I thank the Senator from Michigan for her leadership in this crucial area.

“Mr. President, I just listened to the news this morning on the radio driving in, and the new figures are out for job growth rate and we're growing at now, last quarter at about five percent. That is a turnaround from a negative six percent a year ago.

“About a year ago, we were losing 750,000 jobs each month. It came down to only 35,000 jobs we're losing a month a month ago. Every expectation is that when we end March that we'll actually be in the positive once again. So it shows that President Obama's economic policies and programs and what we did here in the Recovery Act ire working. This is encouraging news. However, there are still almost 15 million to 18 million hard-working people who are still struggling to find work. For these people the recession is still a reality and recovery seems far out of reach. And 6.5 million of them have been out of work for more than half a year. That is the highest number of long-term unemployed we've had since we started keeping track in 1948.

“The families of these long-term unemployed are hanging by a thread. Their savings are exhausted. The unemployment benefits that they get are the lifeline that helps them pay the rent, put food on the table and keep their kids in school.  And yet, in the face of this unprecedented crisis and long-term unemployment, a short-term extension of unemployment insurance is being needlessly --I would even say cruelly -- obstructed here in the United States Senate. In a real case of déjà vu, a few members of the minority party are yet again stonewalling a piece of legislation that I think most people in this room and most of the people in this country would agree is vitally important.

“We know for a fact there's broad support for extending benefits in the Senate because we already passed a longer extension earlier this year. Now, that's the most illogical thing about this whole situation. We have already said we want to continue the federal extended benefits program through the end of this year. We're now just waiting for the House to act. But now we can't pass a 30-day extension to give the House the time they need to catch up. That doesn't make sense. We've already passed it for the year. We just need to fill in the small gap here for one month and those on the minority side are saying no.

“As a result of this political gamesmanship, more than 370,000 unemployed Americans will be abruptly cut off from federal unemployment benefits. They will lose their subsidized COBRA health insurance coverage during the first week of April. In my own state of Iowa, about 1,200 workers struggling with joblessness will see their safety net drop out from underneath them. Blocking this bill may be a political game for some in the minority party, but it's not a game for millions of Americans who in a matter of days will lose their lifeline. For them, this obstructionism by just a few in this chamber is a personal and family crisis of the first magnitude.

“It's interesting, Mr. President, we're going to be leaving here today for the Easter recess. We're out for two weeks. Senators will be going back to their states and probably traveling, doing different things with their families, probably having nice Easter dinners with all their families. And guess what? Not one member of the Senate or the House will lose their pay or benefits during this period of time.

“What about all these people out there right now that are facing an April 5 cutoff of their unemployment benefits, cutoff their cobra health benefits? These are not people that have a big bank vault with a lot of money that they can draw on. These are people hanging by a thread. They have been out of work at least for over half a year. This is just really almost borders on the unconscionable that we would leave here and not do anything.

“I know those on the other side say we have to pay for it. I'm all for paying for things. But I dare say if a tornado wiped out a town in Oklahoma or we had a flood - as we're having some in the Midwest - wipe out a community and we needed to rush money in and rush things in to help people, would we stand here and say, oh, no, we can't call that an emergency, that's not an emergency, that somehow we've got to come up with the pay-fors right away? No, it would be an emergency; we'd rush in to help. For the thousands of Americans who are going to lose their unemployment on April 5, it's an emergency.  It's just as if a tornado hit their home, a flood wiped out their community. It's an emergency. And we respond to emergencies here with emergency spending. That's all we're saying. And for 30 days, short-term, 30 days this is an emergency. And yet, it's being obstructed by the minority, by the Republicans, let's say it for what it is, Republicans are stopping this. It's simply inexplicable.

“There is no reason to put families through the stress and uncertainty of wondering whether their benefits are disappearing. There's no reason to put states through the trouble. Extending benefits is good for the families, workers, the states and our economy.  I call on my colleagues to stop their obstruction. Do the right thing. Just think about those people out there who are going to lose these benefits on April 5.

“I know some people say, well, we'll come back here on the 12th, and maybe by the 15th of the month we'll be able to take care of it and we'll go retroactive and we'll fill that in. Mr. President, these aren't people that can go down to the bank and have a line of credit. These are people that probably in desperation will go down to some loan shark, get some kind of payday loan or something like that and pay 20 percent interest on it for a couple of weeks because they're that desperate.

“Mr. President, I think it's unconscionable that we would hold this up because a few say that we have to pay for it. We'll pay for it. They say we can't put this off on our children or grandchildren. I agree we've got to be careful. We've got to start getting out of the hole we're in. We're in a hole economically but don't put it all on the backs of the few who have been out of work for so long facing getting their money cut off on April 5. Let's have a little heart. Let's have a little compassion. Let's have a little understanding of what these people are going through every day in their lives, the stress that they have. Let's do the right thing and extend the unemployment benefits for another month.”