The unemployment rate was stuck at 9.7 percent in February. The Labor Department report on Friday came at the end of a week when Congress considered ways to spur job growth. Senators on Wednesday refused to go along with a proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders and President Barack Obama to help seniors, the disabled and elderly veterans. Sanders said he will keep trying. The president, meanwhile, began a full-court press to pass health care reform this spring.
Jobs Crisis The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged unemployment last month at the unacceptably high 9.7 percent, but the real-world level of unemployment hovered around 17 percent when those who have given up hunting for a job or settled for part-time positions are counted. On Capitol Hill, the Senate overcame Republican obstruction tactics and passed a one-month extension of unemployment benefits. Senators then debated amendments to a more comprehensive, $150 billion jobs measure that includes one-year extensions of unemployment insurance and health benefits. The measure also includes money to help states fund Medicaid, and a provision to prevent a cut in payments to doctors seeing Medicare patients. A vote on final passage is expected to come early next week. Meanwhile, the House on Thursday passed a measure to boost employment. It also includes a one-year reauthorization of the law governing federal highway funding, as well as an expansion of program allowing companies to write off equipment purchases. The Senate must go along with House revisions before President Obama can sign it into law. To watch Sanders at a Capitol press conference on jobs and unemployment benefits, click here.
Social Security Sanders vowed to continue to fight for a one-time payment of $250 to all Social Security recipients, including more than 100,000 in Vermont. His effort to pass the plan - supported by President Obama and leading seniors and veterans organizations - fell 11 votes short on Wednesday. "It is extremely unfair that at a time when this Congress bailed out Wall Street...to say ‘well, we're sorry we can't afford to take care of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.'" His amendment would have given what would amount to a 2 percent raise to 55 million seniors who, for the first time in decades, received no increase this year in Social Security. The payments also would have gone to recipients of veterans' benefits and disability benefits as well as railroad retirees and retired public employees who don't receive Social Security. "In the midst of a major recession, with health care and prescription drug costs rising rapidly, we cannot forget about the millions of seniors and disabled veterans who are struggling hard to keep their heads above water," Sanders said. To watch him make the case for the amendment in a Senate floor speech, click here.
Health Care President Obama made it clear that he would push for passage of health care reform with or without Republican members of Congress, whom he courted without noticeable results for the past year. His plan contemplates House approval of a plan passed late last year by a supermajority of 60 senators. Then, both the Senate and House would retool some provisions with a process that lets a simple majority of senators approve legislation. Sanders defended the plan to use the majority-rules "budget reconciliation" process to pass health care reform. He told Vermont Public Radio that Republicans who oppose the strategy are being hypocritical because Republican used the same process many times in the past to push through controversial bills. "I find it somewhat amusing that my Republican friends here are saying, ‘Oh, we can't go forward with reconciliation.' Well, since 1980 reconciliation has been used 22 times - 16 of those times it's been used by the Republicans. They have used it far more than anyone else." To listen to the interview on VPR, click here.
Public Option Obama says he supports a public insurance program to compete with private insurers and hold down prices, but he did not include it in his proposed legislation. Sanders said he thinks that's a mistake. He believes a majority in Congress like the overwhelming majority of Americans support a public option. Sanders asked your opinion. The result was hugely lopsided. "Would you favor or oppose the government offering some people who are uninsured the choice of a government-administered health insurance plan -- also known as a 'public option' -- that would compete with private health insurance plans?" the survey asked. So far, more than 3,700 people who took the poll favored a public option compared to about 300 who opposed it. If you haven't taken the survey already on health care and other issues, click here.
Energy Conservation Senators on Thursday introduced legislation to provide incentives to improve the energy-efficiency of commercial and residential buildings while creating jobs. The "Building Star" program, cosponsored by Sanders, included his financing provision to help residents and businesses cover the upfront cost of efficiency measures. By utilizing rebates and low-interest loans, the legislation would leverage between two and three dollars in private investment for every federal dollar spent. To read more, click here.