Senate Fails to Advance Jobless Benefit Plan as Parties Spar

The U.S. Senate failed to move forward 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 almost a year -- stalled the measure since last week. With no deal in sight, today’s 55-45 vote may scuttle action on the bill. Sixty votes were needed for it to advance.

“I am disappointed that we couldn’t work something out,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who shortly before the vote offered Republicans a chance to propose amendments.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Reid’s offer was “utterly absurd” and “fundamentally unfair” because it required 60 votes for Republican proposals to prevail. Final passage of the bill, though, would require only 51 votes.

Senator Dean Heller of Nevada was the only Republican to vote to advance the measure. Reid voted against it to preserve his ability to bring the bill up again later.

The prospects for extending the unemployment insurance do “not look very good right now,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said before the vote. Collins said she’s still hopeful for an agreement.

No Offset

The expanded 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 insisted on adding language to pay for the expanded benefits with budgetary reductions elsewhere.

Democrats, who control 55 seats in the 100-member chamber, needed 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 were for almost a year instead of three months.

“I know that everyone has worked very hard to work through this process, to try to thread the needle,” Reid said on the Senate floor today.

‘Good-Faith Offer’

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.

Hoeven said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast that he hoped the Republicans’ “good-faith offer” would move the negotiations forward.

White House press secretary Jay Carney expressed disappointment that the Senate failed to advance the Democrats’ proposal and said President Barack Obama’s administration would would work with lawmakers from both parties to find a solution.

“Extending emergency unemployment insurance is the right thing to do for these Americans and their families, and it’s the right thing to do for our economy,” Carney said in an e-mailed statement.

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.

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, 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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