Compromise talks on a new program of long-term jobless benefits ran aground in the Senate on Tuesday, leaving the fate of the measure in extreme doubt while Republicans and Democrats vied for political advantage in the wreckage.
"This is a dispiriting moment for millions of Americans," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., whose state's unemployment is measured at 9 percent.
At issue was a struggle over the possible resurrection of a program that expired on Dec. 28, immediately cutting off support for more than 1.3 million unemployed workers who have exhausted state-paid benefits that generally run for 26 weeks.
The legislation is the first of the year in the Senate, and an early preview of a competition between the two parties for support in this year's election from economically squeezed voters.
After more than a week of negotiations, though, the Senate blocked a pair of Democratic-drafted proposals from advancing, after first denying Republicans a chance to change the legislation — all on near party-line votes.
Clearly anticipating the outcome, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans in advance of resorting to obstruction to block help to families in need.
"We have a filibuster before us again. Another one," Reid said. Republicans want to "have their cake and eat it, too," he said, by having the Senate vote on their own proposed changes in the legislation without guaranteeing to then let the measure pass afterward.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell countered that Reid was trying to "fix the result" by requiring Republicans to amass 60 votes behind any of their proposed changes, an all-but-impossible threshold to meet given the circumstances. He said GOP efforts to improve the measure had been checked by Reid at every turn, even if one of the Republican proposals had cross-party appeal.
The day's events are likely to be the Senate's last word on the unemployment measure until late this month or next month at the earliest.
Reed and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said separately they hoped compromise efforts wouldn't end, but Reid made no immediate announcement about when the issue might return to the Senate floor.
For all the maneuvering over the last several days, the level of suspicion across party lines has been unusually evident — with some Republicans saying the Democrats' goal was to gain political advantage rather than pass legislation while some Democrats say the objective of most GOP lawmakers had been to torpedo the bill all along.
The developments capped a period that began last week when a half-dozen Republicans unexpectedly sided with Democrats to push an initial Democratic measure past a procedural hurdle. At the same time, they made clear they would seek changes, and also the right to have Republican amendments come to a vote.
The initial Democratic proposal would have renewed the expired benefits program for three months, but without offsetting budget cuts. That meant pushing deficits higher by about roughly $6.4 billion over a decade.
Under pressure, Democrats eventually rewrote their proposal to reduce the maximum number of weeks of benefits it would provide. They also proposed offsetting the cost with provisions set to begin more than a decade into the future. Instead of three months, the new program would have run until November.
On Monday, more than a half-dozen Republicans countered with a plan for a three-month renewal of jobless benefits, coupled with a repeal of recently voted curbs on cost of living increases that go to military retirees under the age of 62. The total cost was put at about $12 billion, and would have been offset over a decade.
Simultaneously, McConnell triggered a debate last week with an unusually long speech on the Senate floor in which he castigated Reid, accusing him of systematically trying to block GOP amendments from coming to a vote for months at a time. His remarks became a key point in comments by his GOP rank and file over the next day.
The day's first vote was on McConnell's attempt to clear the way for a vote on a GOP proposal to change the bill. It failed, 55-45, on a party-line vote.
Next came an attempt to advance the revised Democratic legislation. It failed 52-48, eight short of the 60 votes needed.
The final vote of the day was 55-45 on the Democrats' original bill, five shy of the 60 needed.
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