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Unemployment insurance: Why extending it this time has been so hard

Both parties in Congress are citing the US deficit as reasons not to approve new spending unless it's offset. For Republicans, that issue has been unemployment insurance. For Democrats, it's extending the Bush tax cuts.

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Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, left, and newly sworn-in Sen. Carte Goodwin (D) of West Virginia, speak to the press following a Senate vote on extending unemployment benefits Tuesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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A protracted debate over something that used to be easy on Capitol Hill – extending unemployment insurance in tough economic times – comes to an end Wednesday, as the Senate moves to a final vote on a $34 billion relief package.

But a caution: The partisan rift over how to get out of a deep, economic slump that sustained the standoff is only widening. Wednesday’s unemployment vote is already surfacing as a theme for midterm elections that could flip control of one or both houses of Congress.

“After a partisan minority blocked this critical aid to our nation’s families three separate times, the Senate has moved forward on restoring benefits to the 2.5 million Americans whose livelihood has been held hostage by obstruction and game-playing over the past weeks,” said President Obama in a statement after the Senate vote.

The conviction that how governments tax and spend can lift an economy out of a slump – or deepen it – is now fixed faith on both sides of the aisle. The partisan fireworks are over when the huge federal budget deficit is reason to jettison new spending or tax cuts, and when it isn't.

Republicans say new spending to extend unemployment insurance must be offset, citing deficit concerns. They don't apply that same standard, though, when calling for extending the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. Democrats want to only partially extend the Bush tax cuts, citing deficit concerns that, likewise, they don’t mention when calling to extend unemployment insurance.

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