A partisan blow-up has stalled Congress' efforts to extend longterm jobless benefits, despite signs of progress earlier in the week.
Unless Congress acts before the end of January, even more unemployed Americans will lose their jobless benefits—more than 300,000, by some estimates, in addition to the 1.3 million who were cut off in late December. But Senate Democrats have resisted Republican demands to offset the cost of a three-month extension that advanced toward a vote on Tuesday, arguing that such a short-term emergency measure shouldn't have to be paid for.
Instead, Majority Leader Harry Reid offered to pay for a longer-term extension that would continue the emergency benefits through mid-November. The proposal that erupted in barbed exchanges between the parties Thursday afternoon on the Senate floor as Reid refused to bring any Republican amendments up for a vote.
The new Democratic proposal would reduce the maximum length of federal benefits—which kick in after state benefits expire—from 47 to 31 weeks. The estimated $18 billion cost would be offset by extending sequestration cuts to Medicare providers for another year and closing a loophole that allows "double-dipping" between unemployment and disability benefits.
"We've done everything Republicans wanted—it's paid for, has structural changes, takes care of double-dipping," Reid said on the Senate floor.
Republicans quickly shot down Reid's new plan, including those who had broken with their party to support the three-month extension on Tuesday. Sen. Rob Portman, who voted to advance the earlier version of the bill, blasted Reid for refusing to allow votes on Republican amendments to the legislation. The Ohio Republican also said he had been shut out of the negotiations that produced the latest Democratic plan.
"We were not part of the discussion with regard to the payfor that the Reid has put forward," Portman said on the Senate floor.
New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte angrily pointed out that she had offered her own amendment to pay for an extension by requiring Social Security numbers from those claiming a certain child tax credit—a tax measure that unauthorized immigrants were illegally exploiting, she said.
Like Portman, she attacked Democrats for refusing to allow a vote on her amendment or other proposed GOP changes to the bill. "If the Senator from California objects then why don't we vote on it?" Ayotte said, referring to California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who accused Republicans of "fiddling while Rome burns" by making such demands.
The Senate fight has dimmed hopes for reaching a deal to extending federal jobless aid, and the path in the House is even more politically treacherous. Meanwhile, more Americans will continue to lose their benefits in the months to come. Without a federal extension, by the end of March, about 850,000 long-term unemployed will see their benefits end when their state benefits expire, according to the National Employment Law Project.