Democrats push unemployment insurance past procedural hurdle in Senate

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats successfully wrangled enough Republican votes to get an extension of unemployment insurance benefits past a key procedural hurdle, in spite of early pessimism about the bill’s prospects.

The bill must clear a second procedural hurdle before the Senate finally votes on the bill itself.

Unemployment insurance benefits were not included in the budget agreement crafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and Democrats are making a hard push to extend them outside of the budget deal.

But Republicans have objected to the proposal, sponsored by Republican Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, because it does not include any offsets for the spending. Democrats have pressured Republicans on the issue, citing the 1.3 million people who lost those benefits when they expired Dec. 28, and saying that not to extend those benefits was shameful.

Speaking on the floor before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was “troubled” that many Republicans “seem ready to callously turn their backs on the long-term unemployed,” saying doing so “would not only be a crushing blow to the long-term unemployed, it would be a blow to our economy.”

The bill needed 60 votes to pass the procedural hurdle, and it was not expected to clear the bar. But in the end, six Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the extension — Heller, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Indiana Sen. Dan Coats — and the bill cleared, 60-37.

“It was in the balance until the very last moment,” said Reed, at a press conference after the vote.

“I think we’re all a bit surprised,” echoed Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown at that same event.

It is not clear if the bill will go anywhere in the House of Representatives. In a statement following the vote, Speaker of the House John Boehner said that “a strong safety net — six months of unemployment benefits” was the first step to helping the unemployed get back to work, but said that any extension of unemployment benefits would need to be offset and also include some job promoting provisions.

“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” Boehner said. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”

After the vote, Democrats indicated that they would be open to offsets to pay for the spending, but only, cautioned New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, if they were “reasonable.” He called an offer from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to offset the benefits with a year-long delay of the individual mandate, a “non-starter” that “will not pass.”

Schumer said that he would prefer to pass it “no strings attached — get it done, get it done quickly.” But that the “second best choice” would be “finding a reasonable pay-for that can work on both sides of the aisle,” something he said McConnell’s proposal was not.

“I would caution people that’s a lot easier than said than done,” Schumer said, saying he was worried Republicans did not actually want to pass the bill, and would continue to offer unworkable proposals like McConnell’s.

That, he said, would take the Senate down the road of having both sides offering “competing pay-fors” with no middle ground.

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