The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate hits another dead end on unemployment benefits

(Steve Helber/AP)

The Senate remained gridlocked Thursday over the effort to renew emergency unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, including more than 1.7 million Americans without work who lost their benefits as the federal program expired in late December.

In a largely party-line vote, Democrats came a single vote shy of the 60-vote hurdle to break a filibuster by Republicans, who complained that the latest proposal did not have a proper offsetting spending cut to lessen the impact on the federal deficit. Additionally, the two sides continued to squabble over procedural matters related to how many amendments the Republicans would be allowed to offer.

“We've given them everything they wanted,” Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters before the vote, accusing the Republicans of not wanting to reach an actual deal. “They can’t take yes for an answer.”

The latest Democratic proposal, authored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), would extend the federal unemployment benefits program by three months at a cost of $6.4 billion. That program, coming in the wake of the “Great Recession”, has provided additional benefits to unemployed workers who have exhausted the normal 26 weeks of insurance provided in each state.

Democrats had previously argued that these benefits should not be accompanied by offsetting cuts, because the purpose of the insurance program was to provide a boost both to the individual unemployed workers and to the economy as a stimulus. Reed’s latest proposal came with savings drawn from a pension smoothing proposal that allows companies to make different pension contributions based on historical averages, something that would lead to higher tax receipts for the Treasury.

Just four Republicans – Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) – supported the new proposal. With 55 members of the Democratic caucus all in support, Reid needed just one more GOP vote to advance the bill into the formal debate. For procedural reasons, once the fate was certain, Reid voted with Republicans, making it a final 58-to-40 roll call.
Even if the Senate can reach a bipartisan deal on unemployment insurance, the House GOP majority has not shown interest in passing the legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has held much of his ranks together largely as a protest to Reid’s refusal to allow the minority to offer amendments unless they pre-emptively guarantee that the bill will ultimately be approved as written by Democrats.

“If we could enter into such an agreement, that would be a step in the right direction toward getting the Senate back to at least something close to the way it used to be operated, under which bills like that would frequently be brought up with no stipulations, and we would just start processing amendments,” McConnell told reporters recently.