WASHINGTON — The Senate voted, 59 to 38, Monday to restore federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and a small band of Republican supporters swiftly appealed to
a reluctant Speaker John Boehner to permit election-year action in the House as well.
Steps are needed ‘‘to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans,’’ seven House Republicans wrote Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. They released their letter as the Senate was bestowing its widely expected approval on the legislation.
Despite the appeal, the bill’s prospects in the House are cloudy at best, given widespread opposition among conservative lawmakers and outside groups and Boehner’s unwillingness to allow it to the floor without changes that Republicans say would enhance job creation.
The Senate vote itself, seven months before congressional elections, capped a bruising three-month struggle. Fifty-one Democrats, two independents, and six Republicans voted for approval.
The bill was the first major piece of legislation Democrats sent to the floor of the Senate when Congress convened early in the year, the linchpin of a broader campaign-season agenda meant to showcase concern for men and women who are doing poorly in an era of economic disparity between rich and poor.
In the months since then, the Democrats have alternately pummeled Republicans for holding up passage and made concessions in an effort to gain support from enough GOP lawmakers to overcome a filibuster. Chief among those concessions was an agreement to pay the $9.6 billion cost of the five-month bill by making offsetting spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The White House-backed measure would retroactively restore benefits cut off in late December and maintain them through the end of May. Officials say as many as 2.7 million jobless workers have been denied assistance since the law expired late last year.
If renewed, the aid would total about $256 weekly, and in most cases go to men and women who have been off the job for longer than six months.
Senators Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, the bill’s leading supporters, said they were willing to consider changes in hope of securing passage in a highly reluctant House.
Heller also said he was seeking a meeting with Boehner to discuss the measure.
In their letter to Boehner, seven House Republicans wrote that since the program expired, ‘‘many more people have lost benefits each week, bringing the number of long-term unemployed Americans without government assistance to greater than two million.’’
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, noted that the speaker had said months ago ‘‘we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private sector jobs, but last week, Senate Democratic leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all.’’
That was an apparent reference to a refusal by Senate Democrats to permit a vote on a Republican proposal that would have allowed construction of the proposed Keystone oil pipeline from Canada and made numerous changes in the nation’s health care law. GOP lawmakers say all the proposals would help create jobs.
In remarks on the Senate floor before the vote, Senator Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana, directly criticized Democratic leader Harry Reid for refusing to allow votes on GOP-drafted proposals to amend the measure. He called that a ‘‘black mark’’ in the Senate’s history.
Some Democrats assailed Boehner rather than seek to meet with him. Said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York: ‘‘The House needs to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans right now, without attaching extraneous issues that are merely an attempt to score political points.’’
Whatever the bill’s fate in the House, Senate Democrats have taken steps to follow their action with a test vote on a bill to strengthen ‘‘equal pay for equal work’’ laws. That measure includes a provision giving women the right to seek punitive damages in lawsuits in which they allege pay discrimination, a change that Republicans call a gift to trial lawyers who contribute extensively to Democratic campaigns.
Next up in the Democratic attempt to gain ground during the election year will be a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It is currently $7.25 an hour.
Underscoring the political backdrop, a little-noticed provision in the jobless-benefits legislation is specifically designed to benefit the long-term unemployed in North Carolina, where Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, faces a stiff challenge for a new term.
It would make residents eligible for long-term benefits if the state negotiates an agreement with the Department of Labor. North Carolina residents are currently ineligible because state benefits were reduced below a federal standard.