WASHINGTON — The Senate appeared for much of Wednesday headed to a new clash over federal jobless payments, split whether the cost of extending benefits should be offset by budget cuts or new revenues elsewhere.
A day after a $6.5 billion, three-month extension bill advanced through one procedural hurdle, Democrats and Republicans staked out competing positions and dug in, at least publicly.
At the end of the day however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada reported “productive conversations” were taking place on a possible compromise on how to restore payments to 1.3 million long-term unemployed.
Reid, who opposes an offset, postponed a second test vote on the bill Wednesday evening to allow talks to continue.
“If it’s going to be paid for, figure out a year’s worth of pay-for. And that would be much better than this nickel-and-diming. If we try to do it for three months paid-for, I would almost bet that it won’t get done,” Reid said, suggesting a deal might extend the program longer.
Earlier in the day, Reid had a different tone.
“Let me start by saying I’m opposed to offsetting the cost of emergency unemployment benefits,” Reid said flatly.
He asserted that payments to people who have been out of work for more than six months should be declared an emergency not requiring to be balanced.
“Let us extend this now and give these people their benefits and then work to see if we can come up with a long-term solution to this issue,” he said.
Responded Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: “If the majority leader wants this bill to pass the Senate, then it’s a pretty good likelihood he’s going to have to find a way to pay for it.”
McConnell’s comment was echoed by other Republicans.
Six Republicans voted Tuesday for a key motion to move the bill forward, and at least three have said they would reverse course and vote to block the bill from final passage unless Reid relented and allowed votes on amendments to pay for the benefits and avoid increasing the deficit.
“I will not vote to end debate without an offset,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. She was seconded by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
At stake are payments to people who lost benefits when the federal unemployment compensation program was allowed by Congress to expire on Dec. 28.
The federal payments kick in when job seekers exhaust an initial 26 weeks of state-funded benefits. Depending on the unemployment rate in their state, people can collect up to 47 weeks of additional payments averaging $256 weekly.
In Nevada, which leads the nation with a 9 percent unemployment rate, 16,800 people lost federal benefits. Their average weekly check was $314, according to the state Employment Security Division.
Ayotte unveiled an amendment she said would pay for jobless benefits by stopping “illegal immigrants” from claiming additional child tax credits. It would require tax filers to have Social Security numbers to qualify, an estimated savings of $20 billion over 10 years.
Portman and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced amendments to prevent someone collecting federal unemployment from also collecting Social Security disability insurance.
While the Senate jockeyed, debate over unemployment shifted to the House.
At a Democratic rally for benefits, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said lawmakers should reflect whether they have ever been without a job, and “do they know what if feels like to be unemployed?”
Horsford said afterward that he was out of work while attending college in his early 20s.
“I know what it means to look for a job for months and submit applications and resumes week after week and not get a call back when I needed to work,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., urged Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to allow the House to vote on a benefits bill.
Extending the unemployment program “is both a moral imperative and an economically smart choice,” Titus said in a letter to Boehner.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.