Portman: Democrats just wanted to score political points with unemployment insurance bill

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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WASHINGTON — Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman said Wednesday that he thought Democrats did not actually want the short-term extension of unemployment insurance to pass a procedural vote on Tuesday

Instead, Democrats were looking to score political points by attacking Republicans for not voting for it, without having to have the ensuing debate on how to pay for the benefits, he said.

Everybody was surprised when the bill passed, including one of the bill’s authors, Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, who described the vote as “in the balance until the very last moment.”

The bill, which was described in many reports as a messaging bill, was not expected to garner sufficient Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. But it passed, and Portman was one Republican who voted for it, leaving senators to negotiate how to offset the cost.

Portman alleged that Democrats had not wanted to have that debate, and were instead hoping the bill would fail and they could attack Republicans as “callous,” to quote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for not wanting to help the unemployed.

“The Democrats did not expect this,” Portman said at a press conference Wednesday. “I think they were surprised that some of the Republicans stepped forward. … I think they had hoped, frankly, some of them, from a political point of view, that they could say that Republicans were obstructing. I think we kind of took them by surprise.”

“That’s insane,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson, when asked about Portman’s comments.

Both sides are locked in negotiations over how to pay for the spending. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York lampooned an early offer from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to pay for the cuts with a one-year delay of the individual mandate, saying it was not serious.

Portman has proposed an alternative amendment to offset costs by making it against the law to simultaneously receive Social Security Disability Insurance, which is meant for people who are unable to work and therefore unlikely to re-enter the workforce, and unemployment insurance or trade adjustment assistance, both of which are meant for people who are seeking new jobs.

Portman is also a co-sponsor of New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s amendment, which would pay for the unemployment benefits and repeal the cuts to military retiree pensions that are written into the budget deal by prohibiting illegal immigrants from claiming the additional child tax credit.

It remains to be seen whether either of those amendments will be voted on. Republicans have increasingly voiced frustration about the number of Republican amendments that Reid has brought to the floor.

Like Portman, Ayotte also voted to help the unemployment benefits bill clear the procedural vote on Tuesday. Both said they would not vote for it in the next procedural vote — a bar that requires 60 votes for passage — unless a deal on offsets had been reached.

“I think they had kind of hoped this would just be a political exercise,” Portman said of Tuesday’s vote. “But it’s not. It’s a serious exercise now, assuming they’re willing to make it one. In other words, if they’re willing to allow us the chance to have a debate and offer amendments.”

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Alexis Levinson