Lawmakers search for way out of impasse

WASHINGTON -- Congressional officials on Friday began to explore possible ways to break an impasse over extending emergency unemployment benefits as 200,000 jobless people run out of the federal aid each week.

Democratic officials said the House might try to revive the stalled benefits next week as a stand-alone $33 billion bill, without controversial tax and spending provisions that prompted a Senate Republican filibuster on Thursday.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, called for the Senate to consider the same proposal. She urged Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, to bring a bill to a vote "early next week."

The stirrings came after Republicans, including Snowe, filibustered a broader $109 billion tax and benefit bill of which the unemployment insurance was one element, albeit a controversial one.

The Senate debated the legislation on and off for weeks, with Democrats making several rounds of changes in an effort to build support. Ultimately they failed to win over the one or two Republicans they needed to achieve 60 votes to unblock the bill.

After a third cloture attempt failed on Thursday by a 57-41 vote, a visibly frustrated Reid declared Democrats would be moving on to other bills in the party's job creation agenda.

The impasse has meant more than 1.2 million people have lost unemployment benefits averaging $300 a week.

In Nevada, benefits will be exhausted for 22,400 people by the Fourth of July, according to the Department of Labor. The once-booming Silver State has been shocked by a jobless rate that has reached 14 percent, the highest in the nation.

The problem is not unemployment benefits per se, as most senators from both parties say they want them extended for people struggling through the deep recession.

But Democrats and Republicans -- including the senators from Nevada -- are badly split over whether the cost should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

Reid on Friday blamed Republicans for the impasse, saying they were "betting on our country to fail" so GOP candidates can gain advantage in the fall elections.

Reid contended that all but $35 billion for jobless benefits in the broad bill had been offset by cuts elsewhere and by new business taxes.

He said both parties, at least until now, have treated unemployment as a national emergency, exempting benefits from having to be offset.

"The Republicans in the Senate have made the decision to do everything they can to turn the country upside down," he said.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said Friday that Republicans are being unfairly tarred. Democrats are "exploiting" the unemployed to paint Republicans as the bad guys, he said.

Ensign defended his vote against the aid package, saying it was not fully paid for. He said Republicans have offered amendments to extend jobless benefits and pay for them several times this year, and were defeated each time.

Ensign aides who fielded calls from angry and confused constituents on Friday offered a list of six such occasions, the most recent coming last week on an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to the tax and benefits bill.

Ensign said with the government in deep debt he will not vote for unemployment benefits that are not offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

"We have never been in this kind of a serious nature with our debt, and with the potential for our bonds to be downgraded, and with the potential for this to cause economic catastrophe," he said.

As for Nevadans who are losing jobless benefits, "I tell them I feel really bad for them. I do. I think it is a terrible situation and we should have had this fixed weeks ago and it is really a shame.

"But we can't do it and cause further unemployment over the next few years with an economic catastrophe and that is what we are facing," he said. "As far as I am concerned we can work out a deal on Monday as long as they pay for it with spending cuts."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.