fresh voices from the front lines of change







After laboring for all of 18 days this year, Congress adjourns today for another 12-day vacation. They leave behind a city paralyzed by icy weather outside and icy indifference inside the halls of Congress.

They leave after a minority of the Senate used a filibuster to block – by a margin of one vote – the renewal of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Right now 1.7 million Americans and their families – and counting – are being deprived of a vital lifeline with that vote. These are workers unable to find a job in the lousy economy who are scrambling to keep a roof over their heads, to pay the heating bill, to feed their kids. While legislators head to warmer climes for their vacation, many of these families will be forced into homeless shelters.

This is a moral disgrace. The “recovery” tracked by economists has left over 20 million Americans still in need of full-time work. Many search desperately for work for months without success. Many have given up completely and dropped out of the workforce. They get no assistance. Those receiving jobless benefits are the most resolute, still looking after four months, trying to find work that will support their families.

The Republicans that blocked this aid – and they were all Republicans – express ill-concealed scorn for these Americans. These are, in their view, part of the 47 percent of “takers” who Mitt Romney discounted. So Republicans devise various rationales for turning their backs on those in distress.

Republicans demanded that the extension be only for three months, while they worked to reform the program. Democrats disagreed, but conceded.

Republicans demanded that the extension be “paid for,” even though the cost of a three-month extension is a rounding error in the Pentagon budget. Democrats disagreed, but conceded.

Republicans demanded amendments to the bill. Democrats disagreed, but conceded a debate on some.

Consider Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill), Dan Coats (R-Ind) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Coats and Portman initially voted in favor of allowing debate on the program, and Kirk said he would if there was an offset. They are supposedly the Republican “moderates,” an endangered species rarely sighted these days. Their states are plagued with higher unemployment than the national average. In Ohio, 34.6 percent of the jobless are long-term; 41.3 percent in Illinois; 29.1 percent in Indiana.

Portman explained his vote against a three-month extension was because “Democrats wouldn’t negotiate with us on how to pay for it.” Democrats changed the bill to pay for it, but Portman wanted it done in a different way.

Coats voted no because Democrats wouldn’t allow unlimited amendments on the bill. His amendment would have required workers to be cut off if they failed to accept any offer of “suitable work.” Of course, the reason there are so many long-term unemployed is precisely the absence of suitable work.

Kirk earned a special damnation. He said before the vote that he would support the extension if it was “offset,” or paid for. It was paid for. He voted against it anyway and killed the extension.

At the end of the day, these are excuses, not reasons; postures, not principles. This isn’t really a policy debate. It isn’t a partisan debate. Voters have short memories, so this isn’t likely to be a vote that costs much at the polls. No, this is a question of character, a statement of values. This is a vote that reveals just who these senators are.

The Bible says we will be judged by how we treat “the least of these.” Mark Kirk should shudder to think that judgment might be just.

This post has been updated to correct the name of the Republican senator from Illinois, Mark Kirk.

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