- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A handful of Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in pushing a hotly contested extension of unemployment benefits through the Senate Tuesday, but the House’s GOP leadership said the bill isn’t going anywhere until backers figure out how to pay for its $6.5 billion price tag.

Republicans in the House and the Senate want to see the new benefits paid for with spending reductions elsewhere, and have demanded Democrats come up with the cuts. Democrats countered that it’s up to the GOP to find the cash since they don’t think offsets are necessary — leaving little to negotiate on.

“They’re the ones that wanted it paid for,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Republican, told reporters Tuesday. “We don’t think it should be paid for. Why should the onus be on us?”

But House Speaker John A. Boehner said the House won’t take action on the extension of jobless benefits unless Democrats rewrite the plan to find other savings, and include some other pro-jobs programs.

“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,” the Ohio Republican said. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it.”

Tuesday’s 60-37 vote saw six Republicans join Democrats to reject a filibuster and advance the bill, sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, and Dean Heller, Nevada Republican.

The bill would extend federal benefits for long-term unemployed who have already exhausted their state-based benefits. Extended federal benefits expired Dec. 28, cutting off aid to 1.3 million Americans.

Even some of the Republicans who joined Democrats suggested they may withdraw their support if Congress can’t come up with a “pay-for” — Capitol-speak for cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset the new spending.

“I think that this bill would definitely pass if there were a pay-for,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who voted with Democrats, said on Tuesday. “It is understandably disturbing to many members of our caucus to violate the budget that we just passed. So I think we need a concerted effort to find an offset.”

That sets up a test for Mr. Reid, who must decide whether to allow Republicans to offer amendments to the bill.

“We’d be happy to offer amendments just as soon as the guy whose dictating what the amendments ought to be will let us offer them,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who voted for the filibuster.

Mr. McConnell suggested paying for the three-month extension by delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate for one year.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, proposed preventing illegal immigrants from claiming a tax credit, and using that money saved to pay for both unemployment benefits and for reversing cuts to military retiree benefits that were included in last month’s budget deal.

But Mr. Reid said he would only consider allowing amendments if Republicans could come up with “something serious,” and he’s not sure they can find cuts that both parties could agree to.

“Everyone should understand, the low-hanging fruit is gone,” Mr. Reid said. “We’ve scavenged every place we could go.”

Democrats said they don’t think there is a need to offset the new spending, arguing that both parties have regularly approved unemployment benefits without paying for them.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said the issue is a test for Republicans.

“We hope that this is a good-faith negotiation,” Mr. Schumer said. “Some of us fear that our Republican colleagues, while they know the power of this issue, do not want to pass it and will put some obstacles in the way that will prevent the bill from passing.”

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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