In key unemployment benefits vote, Democrats prevail -- with help

In key unemployment benefits vote, Democrats prevail -- with help
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POSTED: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 - 12:00pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 - 12:04pm

A $6.4 billion plan to extend unemployment insurance benefits to eligible workers for another three months cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday.

Sixty senators voted to move ahead with debate on the measure -- the exact number required for debate to go forward and avoid a filibuster.

That's all Senate Democrats needed as they scrambled to clear a hurdle to move forward on extending long-term unemployment benefits to 1.3 million Americans who lost them after the Christmas holiday.

Four Republicans said Monday they would join the 55 members of the Democratic caucus to vote to begin debate on the bill.

But Democrats appear to have found enough Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a GOP filibuster.

The vote was under way late Tuesday morning.

With more than a dozen lawmakers absent due to weather-related travel delays, the Senate had postponed the key procedural vote from Monday on the politically charged proposal.

Big moments on Capitol Hill should be viewed through the lens of November's midterm elections, especially in the Senate, where Republicans are aiming to retake control.

Extending benefits is a priority for congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama, who is trying to make income equality a centerpiece of his second term.

Obama contacted several GOP senators to try to persuade them to support the bill.

The White House Office of Management and Budget released a statement Monday urging Congress to pass the measure.

Obama is scheduled to make a speech later Tuesday morning calling for passage of the bill.

Many Republicans argue a $6.4 billion extension would hurt the economy and act as a disincentive to job creation.

Others members of the GOP have signaled they might back an extension if the cost is offset by budget cuts elsewhere.

Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a Republican who often works across the aisle, got a call from Obama but missed it because he wasn't in the office.

Kirk said he wants to help people but insisted Congress must find a way to pay for the measure.

"I, obviously, have people in my state who would benefit. The better way to go is to not add to the deficit in an irresponsible way," Kirk said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is one of the four Republicans who said they would vote to begin debate on the bill.

However, she said she wouldn't rule out blocking it later if costs are not offset.

"I want us to get on the bill so we can talk about an offset to pay for it," she said. "Ultimately, I think we should restructure the unemployment compensation program so it's more closely linked to job training for the long-term unemployed whose jobs probably are not coming back."

The other three Republicans are Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, a co-sponsor of the bill; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Democrats see themselves in a win-win position on the test vote: They could build momentum for the bill if Republicans back it; they get a political weapon if Republicans don't.

In remarks just before the vote was to have been held, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, noted the absence from the chamber of 17 members and urged that the proceedings be delayed "so we can have a real debate" and decide how to pay for the extension.

Winter weather that plunged the Midwest and much of the South into a deep freeze has triggered widespread travel delays.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, tweeted that his commuter flight bound for Washington returned to South Carolina shortly after takeoff due to a possible engine problem and made a safe emergency landing.

Benefits for the long-term unemployed expired last month after Congress opted not to continue a 2008 recession-era law providing nearly a year of payments, footed by U.S. taxpayers, that kicked in when state jobless benefits ran out.

Democrats insist the program is critical to help Americans who are struggling and to maintain the economic recovery.

Republicans argue that the program -- which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost $26 billion to continue for another year -- is costly and is a disincentive to looking for work.

The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 7% in November, the most recent Labor Department statistics show.

That means more than 10 million people were out of work, a third of them for at least 27 weeks.

Over the weekend, key Republicans, including potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, insisted that an extension must include cuts elsewhere to offset the cost.

"I'm opposed to having it without paying for it," Paul told ABC's "This Week." "I think it's wrong to borrow money from China or simply print up money for it."

House Speaker John Boehner will insist on such offsets before agreeing to an extension, a spokesman for the Republican leader said.

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared optimistic about reaching the 60 votes needed to begin debate, conservative interests were applying heavy pressure and keeping score.

The Club for Growth urged all senators to vote "no" on the proposal and cited the lack of spending offsets.

"Congress should end the federal unemployment insurance program and return the authority back to the states, which already have programs in place," the group said.

"Absent this, Congress should pay for this extension by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget. After six years, an extension can no longer be called an 'emergency' with any credibility. There is plenty of waste in the federal budget from which to find an offset," it said.

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