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Negotiations collapse, new Senate battle over jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — A potential compromise to extend federal payments to the long-term unemployed collapsed Thursday, pitching the U.S. Senate into a new partisan battle over aid to jobless workers.

Sen. Harry Reid at midday said he was optimistic a deal might be close.

But several hours later, the Senate majority leader from Nevada took to the Senate floor, unveiled a new plan formed by Democrats and blocked attempts by Republicans to make changes.

The move infuriated Republican senators and threatened to sink the Senate anew into gridlock and harsh partisan warfare.

It also raised questions whether the new plan for jobless aid could muster the necessary 60 votes to get to final passage. At least five Republicans would be needed to reach that threshold, and their initial reactions were not positive.

“We were not part of the discussion,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “Honestly we never had a chance to sit down and talk about this.”

Republicans charged it was the latest example of dictatorial rule by the Senate leader.

Echoing complaints by other members of his party, Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana said that under Reid’s leadership, he has been relegated to the sidelines. Indiana voters “didn’t send me here to be told just to sit down and forget it.”

For his part, Reid said “nothing is quite good enough” for Republicans. He accused them of “continually denigrating our economy, our president and frankly, I believe, our country.”

Sen. Dean Heller, who had been involved in compromise talks, had no immediate comment. The Nevada Republican “is still looking at the proposal and is talking to his Republican colleagues about it,” his spokeswoman Chandler Smith said.

Heller had gone to the hospital on Thursday afternoon after a cast on his right foot from heel surgery cracked.

Returning to the Senate floor wearing a fresh cast, Heller was surrounded by fellow Republicans after the blowup. He adjourned to the cloakroom with several other GOP negotiators including Portman and Susan Collins of Maine.

The new plan would continue the federal unemployment program until Nov. 15 but scale back the number of weeks eligible applicants could collect federal checks from a maximum of 47 down to a maximum 31.

Counting 26 weeks of state-paid benefits, that means a person looking for a job would be able to collect for a combined maximum of 56 weeks, down from 73 when the program expired on Dec. 28.

The first tier of additional benefits would be six weeks and be generally available to all who have used up their state eligibility.

An additional six weeks would be available in states where unemployment is 6 percent or higher; an additional nine weeks in states with joblessness of 7 percent or higher; and 10 more weeks in states where unemployment is 9 percent or more.

The unemployment rate in Nevada is 9 percent, the nation’s highest with Rhode Island.

Democratic aides said the new formula was designed to provide the most aid in hardest-hit states.

The cost of the 11-month extension was pegged at $18 billion. Officials said it would be paid for by extending the automatic budget-cutting sequester program for a year, to 2024 and by reducing Social Security disability benefits for people in weeks they also are eligible to collect unemployment.

But Roll Call reported Thursday night preliminary analysis by the Congressional Budget Office raises questions about the cost savings.

In a dramatic sequence on the Senate floor, Reid said the new proposal gave Republicans what they wanted — a bill that contained structural changes in the unemployment program and one that was paid for.

Now, he said, the question was whether Republicans “are going to turn their backs on people who are desperate.” Federal benefits for 1.4 million job seekers had expired on Dec. 28, including more than 16,800 in Nevada.

The Senate had been discussing unemployment benefits since it returned to session Monday, and Reid said it was time to move on.

“We have bent over backwards,” he said. “The time is now to fish or cut bait,”

It was unclear however, what or when the next move would be. Senators recessed for the weekend, and they weren’t scheduled for any more votes until Monday evening.

Reid argued Republicans had not offered acceptable proposals to pay for the benefits.

A proposal to generate savings by preventing residents in the country illegally from claiming child tax credits would “hurt American children,” he said. Another, to eliminate disability payments to people collecting unemployment, met with resistance from the disabled community, he said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, asked whether Reid intended to allow any GOP amendments to the bill.

Reid said, “The answer to your question is no.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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