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Unemployment bill advances in Senate

The Senate advanced a three-month extension of benefits.
Democratic Senator from Rhode Island Jack Reed heads to the Senate floor for a cloture vote on the extension of unemployment insurance, Jan. 6, 2014.
Democratic Senator from Rhode Island Jack Reed heads to the Senate floor for a cloture vote on the extension of unemployment insurance, Jan. 6, 2014. 

Senate Democrats advanced a bill extending unemployment benefits, securing the Republican votes necessary to move the legislation forward.

Six Republicans joined Democrats in advancing a short-term extension of federal unemployment benefits—just enough support to ensure the bill could avoid a filibuster.

"It was in the balance until the last minute," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the Democratic sponsor of the bill, who said he was surprised at the 60-37 vote.

Along with GOP Sen. Dean Heller, who co-sponsored the legislation with Reed, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, Dan Coats, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Rob Portman broke with the GOP caucus to move the bill forward on Tuesday morning. The three-month extension of federal aid kicks in for unemployed workers after their state unemployment benefits expire. 

The close vote was a critical victory for Democrats, who've pushed hard for an extension of the aid, whose political fate remains highly uncertain. But it's only the first step, with far bigger political obstacles to overcome in the days ahead.

Republicans have long criticized extended benefits by arguing they discourage the unemployed from looking for work. But on Capitol Hill, they've focused the debate on the cost of the extension. Collins and Portman say that the $6 billion bill must be paid for and is demanding a debate over offsets before the Senate vote for the bill's final passage.

"Not paying for the extension adds to the nation's historic debt, causing more uncertainty for the economy and making it harder to create jobs," Portman said in a statement after the vote.

Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner reiterated his position that he'll only consider a bill with payfors attached after the Senate vote. 

"One month ago, I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan," Boehner said.

Democrats say that offsets shouldn't be necessary, pointing out that Republicans supported earlier emergency unemployment bills without them.  But even if they agree to the GOP's demand, it's unclear where the money will come from. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan struggled to find enough funds for a small-ball budget bill, as major entitlement and tax changes were politically unpalatable. 

Following the vote, President Obama appealed to Congress to extend unemployment benefits. While talking from the White House, Obama made note of the country's growing economy over the past four years, but urged that "we've got to do more to make sure that all Americans share in that growth ...  In other words, we got to make sure that this recovery leaves nobody behind. And we've got a lot of work to do on that front."

As far as the hopes of jobless Americans, the president said that "we make a promise because when times get tough we are not people who say you're on your own" and concluded: "They just want to feel as if, as a part of their communities, if misfortune strikes, all hard work they've done in the past, that counts for something."