Thursday, March 4, 2010 | 2 a.m.
It should come as no surprise that Republican Sen. John Ensign voted this week against extending unemployment benefits for out-of-work Nevadans — despite the state’s 13 percent jobless rate.
Long before Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky brought the Senate to a standstill to protest the cost of additional unemployment benefits, Ensign of Nevada played a similar spoiler role.
Ensign has long questioned the worth of extended unemployment benefits, asserting that excessive aid deters the jobless from finding work.
Ensign has not gone so far as to wonder if the government is creating “hobos,” as Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller did last month. But his sentiment is similar.
“The more generous the benefit, the easier you make it to stay on unemployment insurance, and the less incentive there is for people to actually go out and do what it takes to get a job,” Ensign said during a pivotal debate in 2003.
At that time, Ensign objected much the same way Bunning had been doing over the past week to bipartisan requests to take up an unemployment extension.
On at least three occasions in 2003 during the days before Congress adjourned for the Thanksgiving recess, Ensign rose to object to legislation that would have extended unemployment insurance benefits.
The national unemployment rate was 6 percent at the time, higher in other states, and lawmakers were worried about a recovery from the post-9/11 economic downturn.
Ensign argued then that the economy was looking up and, under Democratic control, Congress and the White House in past years had cut off benefits when the jobless rate was as high as 6.4 percent.
“This is not about being cruel and heartless,” Ensign said at the time.
Today’s national unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, and 176,000 Nevadans are jobless. States grant up to 26 weeks of jobless benefits, but the federal government has extended aid during the recession. In Nevada and other hard-hit states, nearly two years of benefits, 99 weeks, are offered.
Late Tuesday, as Bunning ended his one-man stand and the bill came to the floor, Ensign joined a minority of Republicans who voted against the legislation.
His office declined a request for comment.
The bill includes a 30-day extension of unemployment benefits and a continuation of the 65 percent COBRA subsidy to help laid-off workers pay to remain on company health plans, among other provisions.
Bunning argued the cost of the $10 billion package should not be added to the federal debt, and said he was taking a stand “so my grandkids don’t have to pay the bill.”
Bunning suggested money could come from either unused stimulus funding or by closing a biofuel tax credit loophole. But he was unable to get a majority of his colleagues to agree.
The bill passed overwhelmingly 78-19, and late Tuesday President Barack Obama signed it into law.