Jobless Benefits Near Senate Vote With No Deal in Sight

The U.S. Senate plans to vote today on whether to advance a Democratic plan to restore emergency jobless benefits that expired Dec. 28 for 1.3 million Americans.

A dispute over how to cover the cost of the benefits and how long they should continue -- for three months or close to a year -- has stalled progress on the measure since last week. With no deal in sight, today’s vote may scuttle action on the bill.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said today he was frustrated that Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, hadn’t allowed votes on Republicans’ “common-sense proposals.”

“Ideally, we’d have spent the past week voting on those proposals,” said McConnell, of Kentucky. “So there’s really no good reason for us to be in the position that we are now.”

The expanded benefits program started in 2008, when the U.S. jobless rate was 5.6 percent, and at one point provided as many as 99 weeks of benefits for the long-term unemployed. At the end of 2013 the maximum was 73 weeks, including 26 weeks of state-funded benefits. The national jobless rate in November was 7 percent.

Democrats had proposed a three-month extension of the jobless benefits, costing $6.4 billion, as emergency aid without offsetting the cost.

Six Republicans joined Democrats to keep the bill alive in a procedural vote Jan. 7. All are insisting, as a condition of their support today, on adding language to pay for the added benefits with budgetary reductions elsewhere.

Five Republicans

Democrats, who control 55 seats in the 100-member chamber, need the support of at least five Republicans to advance the proposal.

Reid said last week he would be open to covering the cost of the unemployment benefits measure only if the extension was for almost a year instead of three months. On the Senate floor today, he said he remained optimistic that an agreement could be reached before today’s vote.

“I hope that’s possible, and we’re certainly trying,” Reid said.

North Dakota Senator John Hoeven said today that he and other Republicans proposed to Reid a plan to extend the jobless benefits for three months with the cost fully covered.

“The disagreement is Republicans want to be able to vote on amendments,” which Reid won’t allow, Hoeven said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast. Hoeven said he hoped the Republicans’ “good-faith offer” would move the negotiations forward.

Budget Gimmick

Talks imploded Jan. 9 when Reid proposed renewing the benefits through mid-November and covering the cost in part by adding a year to automatic federal spending cuts. Republicans called that a budget gimmick and complained that they weren’t being given a chance to offer amendments.

Another Republican who participated in the negotiations, Ohio Republican Rob Portman, said the latest proposal to Reid was based largely on Reid’s most recent offer.

Portman said he was committed to keeping the time frame to three months, though “there are people on both sides of the aisle who -- for political reasons -- would like to kick this beyond the elections.”

As part of their focus on income inequality, Democrats in the coming weeks will seek to raise the federal minimum wage and increase spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said his chamber will consider extended jobless benefits only if the cost is covered and if the measure includes job-creation provisions.

The emergency benefits have been renewed 11 times since President George W. Bush put them in place. All extended benefits are covered by federal dollars, while initial jobless insurance comes from federal, state and employer funds.

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