Heller pleads for votes to extend federal jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dean Heller pleaded with fellow Republicans on Monday to extend unemployment benefits for jobless workers, saying Congress left millions of people in the lurch when it allowed payments to expire two weeks ago.

“For those benefits to simply vanish without giving families time to plan or figure out alternatives to help them get by, to me it’s just not right,” the Nevadan said.

Heller’s appeal came as the Senate postponed a procedural vote on a bill that would extend federal jobless benefits for three months, retroactive to Dec. 28, when the program expired for 1.3 million beneficiaries, including 17,600 Nevadans in a state still suffering the worst jobless rate in the nation.

“We should provide some relief to millions of Americans who were left hanging when Congress went home in December,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The battle over unemployment was a lead-off issue as the Senate began its 2014 election year session. The House was scheduled to return today.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rescheduled the unemployment vote for this morning at the behest of Republicans after more than a dozen senators were delayed returning to Washington because of bad weather.

It was unclear how the delay might affect the vote. Sixty votes are needed to advance the White House-backed bill through a procedural hurdle, and advocates were still seeking supporters Monday evening.

The $6.5 billion cost for another three months of payments has become a sticking point because the extension bill, sponsored by Heller and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., does not offset that spending with new revenues or cuts elsewhere.

It is presumed all 55 members of the Democratic caucus will vote for the bill. Heller was the only Republican publicly backing it until Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine suggested she also might be a yes vote after being called by President Barack Obama.

The task of rounding up votes became more challenging after the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, two conservative groups, urged senators to vote no and told them their votes would be noted in election-year scorecards.

In a speech directed at Republicans and fellow conservatives, Heller defended his record as a foe of excessive spending. He noted he sponsored an earlier unemployment bill that was paid for and would be willing to do so again.

“I understand my colleagues’ concern about cost and their desires to pay for this extension,” Heller said. “I too want to see our federal debt brought under control, and I think my voting record is proof of that concern.”

But in the meantime, he said, Congress needed to rescue families who greeted the new year “with anxiety over how they are going to feed their families.”

Heller said the problem is acute in Nevada, which shares with Rhode Island the nation’s highest unemployment rate of 9 percent.

When he and daughter Emmy showed up on Thanksgiving to help serve dinner at a Reno soup kitchen, “the venue was absolutely packed. … the line was four blocks long.”

“It was such an obvious example of how so many Nevadans are unable to provide for their basic needs and this cannot be ignored,” he said.

Federal benefits kick in after job seekers exhaust their initial 26 weeks of state-funded payments. The expanded benefits allow them to receive up to 47 more weeks of checks depending on their state’s jobless rate.

Payments, which average about $256 weekly, will be cut off to thousands more in the coming weeks as their initial weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits expire.

A three-month extension would give Congress time to come up with ways to pay for further benefits, or to make changes in the program, Heller said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.