The Democrats’ unemployment benefits bill, already reeling from GOP attacks, is now running into budget problems after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled a new version late last week that adds billions of dollars to the deficit.
Trying to sort out the issues, Mr. Reid postponed a key filibuster showdown vote Monday, saying he wanted to give all sides more time to try to work out a compromise.
Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, wants to see a yearlong extension of federal unemployment benefits, at a cost of $17 billion. Republicans have countered that they want a shorter extension, and want the cost to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said Monday the bill breaks the recent budget deal that set new limits on spending this year. If he challenges the bill as a budget-buster, it would take another 60-vote threshold to officially waive the budget.
“It appears that promises made in Washington are made to be broken,” Mr. Sessions said. “With the first bill in this Congress on the floor, we have an unemployment insurance extension that totally busts those limits.”
Long-term unemployment insurance expired Dec. 28, leaving 1.5 million people without their benefits.
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Democrats said the extra benefits are usually considered an emergency and offsets have not been required. But under pressure from the GOP, they wrote an 11-month extension last week, coupling it with budget limits that would kick in after a decade.
“My Republican colleagues can’t take yes for an answer, but if they flood this with extraneous amendments, it will be clear they never wanted it in the first place,” Mr. Reid said Monday.
When Republicans demanded an offset for the extension, GOP senators offered a flurry of good government amendments with solutions ranging from preventing illegal immigrants from collecting child tax credits to stopping people from collecting disability and unemployment insurance in the same month.
The debate comes as the latest figures suggest the government had been making progress on reducing the deficit.
The Treasury Department released numbers for the first three months of fiscal year 2014 on Monday showing the government spent about $70 billion less than in fiscal year 2013, suggesting that the spending cuts instituted in recent years have begun to work.
The recently-passed budget deal, however, increases spending and provides some sequester relief, so the downward trend will not last, even if an extra $16 billion for unemployment insurance isn’t tacked onto the deficit.
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In addition to considering an unemployment insurance extension, Congress has an omnibus spending bill that needs to be passed this week to avoid triggering another government shutdown.
Despite these other priorities, Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, said it would be inhumane for Congress to leave Washington for a weeklong vacation without addressing unemployment benefits.
“We’re leaving on Thursday for 11 days, 11 days. And we simply cannot leave 1.5 million people in the lurch, leave them out in the cold,” Mr. Levin told reporters Monday. “There’s really as I see it and as I think more and more of my colleagues understand this there’s no humane, honorable choice but to act this week.”