Efforts to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits stalled again Tuesday, as Republicans and Democrats were unable to come up with an agreement on the details of the bill or a process for considering amendments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered Republicans a chance to offer amendments to what has become a Democratic proposal to extend unemployment for 11 months, and pay for that extension with cuts to spending in 2024.
In theory, extending federal unemployment benefits should be fairly simple. Jobless aid helps millions of struggling Americans, reduces poverty, and boosts the economy. Democratic lawmakers and President Obama support an extension and expect nothing in return. They even offered a package that, at least technically, ensured that the bill would be paid for.
And yet, doing the smart thing is proving to be incredibly difficult in the face of Republican opposition.
In recent weeks, while Senate Dems want to pass the bill in exchange for nothing, GOP senators have debated among themselves what they should get as a reward for allowing the chamber to vote. Some Republicans said they'd agree to help the unemployed, but only if Democrats weaken the Affordable Care Act. Or approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Or punish undocumented immigrants.
Note, all of this is itself an entirely different posture from the Republicans' original position, articulated last month, that unemployment benefits are actually bad for the unemployed and the economy. GOP officials then transitioned to the opposite position, but said they'd have to be paid a ransom before they'd allow a vote on a bill they're likely to oppose anyway.
As of this afternoon, the fight was over process -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants votes on amendments to the bill extending unemployment benefits that aren't especially relevant to unemployment benefits. Why? Because McConnell hopes to bring up politically difficult measures that could be used in attack ads against vulnerable Democratic incumbents. In other words, people are being forced to suffer because the Minority Leader wants to play some election games.
Reid said he'd agree to five amendments for each party, but McConnell insisted that there could be no 60-threshold on the amendments, even as Republicans imposed a 60-vote threshold on the bill itself.
It wasn't long before the entire debate effectively collapsed. The Senate voted on an 11-month extension that was paid for, and though it received a majority, it failed anyway -- 52 votes was far short of what was needed to overcome Republican obstructionism.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said the effort to renew jobless aid "does not look very good right now," which seems like quite an understatement.
In the meantime, those struggling to find work wait for Republicans to ease up on their objections. The Associated Press talked to Lita Ness of Colorado Springs, who used to work as a civilian contractor at a local Air Force base before losing her job. "I'm registered as a Republican, but if they continue to [block unemployment aid] I'm probably changing to Democrat," she said.