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Senate GOP blocks unemployment aid

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a three-month extension of unemployment insurance for the estimated 1.7 million Americans who are unemployed.

For Congress, it was just another day in gridlock: Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a three-month extension of unemployment insurance for the estimated 1.7 million jobless Americans.

But for Vince Coniglio, the Senate's inaction means that there's no doubt he's going to be selling his car tomorrow.

"I worked for a living—I paid into the system my entire life," says Coniglio, a 53-year-old IT professional from central Ohio who's been unemployed for a year and a half. His benefits expired last year, and he is now planning to apply for heating assistance and food stamps to make ends meet. "The first time in my life I ask for something, I get punched square in the gut," he says.

In fact, the the Senate bill was just a single vote away from clearing a key procedural hurdle. But despite weeks of negotiations and lobbying, all but four Republicans held out against extending federal benefits for the long-term unemployed.

The actual vote tally was 58-40, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed his vote to “no” so that the measure could be brought up again in the Senate at a later date. Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted in support of the bill. 

It was the second time that Democrats have tried and failed to pass an extension of federal unemployment insurance since the aid expired on December 28, dimming hopes that the program will be revived.

"By the smallest of margins, Senate Republicans are leaving unemployed Americans and the families who they support with the largest of problems," said Rep. Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.  

The latest version of the bill emerged from bipartisan negotiations between Collins, Heller, and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. In response to Republican demands that the $6.4 billion measure be paid for, the proposal offset the extended benefits with a change known as "pension smoothing" that would change companies' payments for federal pension insurance. Even on Thursday, the "pension smoothing" offset received an implicit endorsement from House Republicans, who floated using it for another purpose—undoing military pension benefits. 

But the changes apparently weren't sufficient for Senate Republicans, even some who had voted to advance an earlier version of the bill without offsets.

"Rather than work with us to find common ground, the majority leader once again chose to reject our ideas and block action on amendments to improve and pay for this legislation," Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana said in a statement after the vote. The Indiana Republican had voted to move legislation forward last month, as did Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. 

Coniglio, who lives about 70 miles south of Cleveland, can't understand why his own state's senator won't get on board with the bill. "I've been a political junkie my whole life, and I was actually a Republican almost my entire life. This whole ridiculousness of just blocking things to block's going to give me a nervous breakdown or an ulcer," he says.

David Taintor and NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell contributed reporting.