Democrats' election-year push to extend federal unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless died Tuesday after Senate Republicans filibustered, leaving more than 1 million long-term unemployed workers without aid and both sides pointing fingers.
Democrats rejected Republicans' demand that the spending be offset by cuts elsewhere. As written, the bill would add $17 billion to the deficit — a figure Republicans said they couldn't stomach.
The Senate fell four votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster and signaled that the gridlock that halted most major debates last year would continue.
"It is extremely urgent that we act, and today we failed to act," Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and sponsor of the three-month benefit extension, said on the Senate floor after the vote. "We have to continue to work toward a solution. We have to keep the economy moving forward and creating jobs, and that's what this was about."
Democrats vowed to try again, soon.
The federal benefits are on top of state unemployment benefits and kick in for workers when state aid expires, usually after a few months.
When the extended federal benefits expired Dec. 28, aid was cut off for 1.3 million people in the workforce. More than 70,000 will continue to lose benefits each week through the first half of the year if the unemployment insurance is not extended.
Senators in both parties said the benefits should be extended, but they stalemated over whether — or how — to pay for them.
Over time, the fight evolved into a broader question of how the Senate is run. Republicans accused Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, of being a dictator by preventing them from offering amendments.
"The majority leader has used the techniques available to the one individual in the Senate who has the right of first recognition to prevent not only our members from getting amendments but his members from getting amendments," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told reporters Tuesday. "The Senate can't work that way."
Mr. Reid countered by saying he would allow five Republican amendments with a 60-vote threshold to pass and would require that Republicans agree not to filibuster the final bill.
Mr. Reid said that would establish a precedent for both sides to introduce amendments.
"In the future, we're going to have amendments. We're going to do that, and my caucus supports that. We want to have relevant amendments. I think that's only fair," he said.
Mr. McConnell called the offer "utterly absurd," saying Mr. Reid was stacking the deck so Republican amendments would have no chance of passing and taking away the minority party's right to filibuster.
"I couldn't sell to my members something crafted like this, that guaranteed we had no real chance," Mr. McConnell said. "The practical effect of it is to disenfranchise the people that I and my members represent and, more significantly, a significant number of the people that his members represent whose voices are simply not heard here in the Senate."
Eight Republican senators worked to craft a three-month unemployment insurance extension that also would repeal cuts made to military retirement in last month's budget deal. The plan would have prevented people from collecting unemployment insurance and disability payments in the same month, and was paid for over the 10-year budget window by deepening sequestration. Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, said he had the votes to pass the bill, and Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican, said the House would have supported it as well.
They presented the bill to reporters Tuesday afternoon as a good-faith effort, although they knew the plan was doomed.
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