UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: Senate Negotiations Falter
(CNN) — Senate passage of long-term unemployment benefits appeared in doubt on Tuesday following the failure of two procedural votes, leaving the fate of emergency government assistance to more than 1 million people in limbo.
The votes come after fits and starts in negotiations involving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and eight Republican Senators.
All parties said they hoped the talks would continue but several acknowledged the bill is now on a back-burner as the Senate scrambles to deal with other pressing legislation before a week-long recess.
One Democratic source said this would be a “cooling off period” after emotional debate.
Talks broke down over policy and process.
The White House said it was disappointed in the development, blaming Republicans. President Barack Obama and Democrats have been pressing for an extension of the recession-era program that expired in December.
“We will continue to work with both sides to find a solution because the cost of inaction is simply too high,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Proponents argue that leaving long-term jobless Americans without a safety net was unacceptable and would also harm the economy since there would be less money for them to spend on goods and services.
According to a Quinnipiac University survey released last week, voters supported by a 58%-37% margin extending unemployment benefits for three months.
There was a partisan divide: Support was 83%-13% among Democrats and 54%-41% among Independent voters, with Republicans opposed 54%-42%.
If a candidate for Congress supports extending jobless benefits, a third of those questioned said they’d be more likely to vote for that candidate, with 24% percent saying less likely and four in 10 saying it wouldn’t affect their vote.
Partisan differences this year in Congress are magnified by the prospect of next November’s midterm elections. Republicans have their eye on retaking the Senate where negotiators disagreed over how to pay for extending unemployment benefits, which run about $25 billion a year.
Democrats argued they made a major concession by agreeing to offset the expense, something that has not been done when similar benefits were approved previously.
But Republicans said that payment plan — which would have extended some of the automatic budget cuts required under so-called sequestration — was insufficient because those cuts wouldn’t kick in for 10 years.
In turn, Democrats argued the GOP proposal to increase the size of some of those same spending cuts was draconian and would hurt many of the same people in need of assistance.
Republicans countered their proposal wasn’t that different from the Democratic plan, except that the cuts would be implemented right away.
Wrangling over amendment also impacted the outcome.
Republicans — especially the six Senators who voted with Democrats to bring unemployment benefits up for debate — wanted to propose amendments on the floor. Republicans regularly complain Reid blocks them from offering amendments.
He initially refused to allow any GOP amendments, but relented under pressure.
Still, his proposal for five GOP amendments, each requiring 60 votes to pass while the underlying Democratic bill would only need 51 votes, angered Republicans.
“This is utterly absurd,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in rejecting the plan.
He argued Democrats were purposely trying to scuttle the bill so they could blame Republicans for blocking benefits.
Is Reid making a good faith effort to pass the bill, a reporter asked McConnell.
“Of course not,” he replied.
Democrats defended their proposal for amendments, saying it was only way to ensure that in the end the bill would pass.
They also acknowledged they were unwilling to “walk on hot coals,” in the words of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, to vote on politically charged amendments offered by Republicans.
“In the end of the day, this debate is not about amendments or Senate procedure, this is about 1.4 million desperate Americans who, through no fault of their own, need the help of their federal government,” Reid said.
Despite the bad blood between the parties, Senators said they hoped they would return to the issue soon and cut a deal.
“I am perennially hopeful” about eventually getting a deal, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the principal GOP negotiators, said with a smile. “Otherwise, how could I be here, right?”
The Republican-led House has not taken up any proposal to renew extended unemployment benefits.