WASHINGTON – Election-year legislation to revive expired federal jobless benefits unexpectedly cleared an early hurdle on Tuesday, offering a hint of bipartisan compromise in Congress and a glimmer of hope to the long-term jobless and their families.
“Let’s get this done,” implored President Barack Obama at the White House, shortly after six Republicans sided with Democrats on a 60-37 Senate vote to keep the measure alive.
Even so, the fate of the three-month reinstatement remained uncertain in an atmosphere of intense partisanship at the dawn of an election year.
The two parties have made it clear they intend to battle for the support of millions of voters who have suffered economically through the worst recession in decades and the slow, plodding recovery that has followed.
The often-cited phrase is “income disparity” – the gap between the rich and the economically squeezed. Democrats are expected to follow the effort on jobless benefits with another pocketbook measure, a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage.
The maneuvering Tuesday was intense. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell proposed paying for the renewal of federal jobless benefits by delaying a requirement for millions of Americans to purchase coverage under “Obamacare” – an attempt to force Democrats to take a public stand on that highly controversial issue.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who generally seeks to shield his rank and file from politically painful votes, deemed McConnell’s proposal a nonstarter.
At the same time, Reid and White House officials suggested they would be receptive to cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to offset the cost of a yearlong renewal of the program, if Republicans would first agree to turn the benefits back on for three months without preconditions.
Reid also said he’d be willing to consider allowing votes on proposed changes, but avoided a flat commitment on a demand Republicans said was essential.
The legislation at the heart of the maneuvering would restore benefits averaging $256 weekly to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless Americans who were cut off when the program expired Dec. 28.
Duration of federal coverage generally ranges from 14 to 47 weeks, depending on the level of unemployment within individual states. The three-month cost to the Treasury is estimated at $6.4 billion.
Without action by Congress, hundreds of thousands more will feel the impact in the months ahead as their state-funded benefits expire, generally after 26 weeks.
Democrats had appeared poised to blame Republicans for blocking the legislation, and the outcome of Tuesday’s vote appeared to catch them off-guard.
The six Republicans who voted to overcome a filibuster were Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.
Heller, Coats and Portman all represents states with unemployment above the national average of 7 percent.
Coats, for one, immediately made clear that his vote came with conditions attached. He said he opposes the measure as drafted, and would vote against it on final passage if Reid “again obstructs senators from offering amendments.”
The Indiana Republican said he believes any extension in benefits should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget to prevent deficits from rising. He said he also favors provisions to help “put Americans back to work,” comments similar to those made by McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner during the day.
Separately, a half dozen Republicans swung behind a proposal to pay for a renewal of benefits by preventing immigrants who live in the country illegally from claiming an income tax break that goes to some families with children.
The same proposal would reverse a provision approved in December to slow the annual increase in veterans retirement benefits for recipients under age 62.
Reid, in comments to reporters, said unemployment benefits had been extended several times when George W. Bush was president and Congress did not insist on paying for them with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“This is new religion to them,” he said of Republicans.
Any debate over paying for renewing jobless benefits is almost certain to circle back to a perennial disagreement over taxes.
In last month’s successful negotiations over spending legislation, Democrats sought to close tax loopholes to keep deficits from rising. Republicans refused, demanding spending cuts or higher fees instead.
At the same time the two parties struggle with one another, Republicans are also under pressure from outside groups who oppose any renewal of jobless benefits, including some with ties to the tea party.
Any legislation that clears the Senate would also have to make it through the House, where dozens of tea party-aligned lawmakers are in office.
In a statement issued shortly after the Senate vote, Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has previously informed the White House that any measure to renew unemployment benefits “should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it.”
At the White House, Obama, too, said he was siding with victims of the recession.
“These aren’t folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen,” he said. “They’re out there actively looking for work.”
At issue is a system that provides as much as 47 weeks of federally funded benefits, beginning after the exhaustion of state benefits, usually 26 weeks in duration.
The first tier of additional benefits is 14 weeks and generally available to all who have used up their state benefits.
An additional 14 weeks is available in states where unemployment is 6 percent or higher. Nine more weeks of benefits are available in states with joblessness of 7 percent or higher. In states where unemployment is 9 percent or higher, another 10 weeks of benefits are available.
Officials also said a little-noticed provision in the legislation is specifically designed to benefit the long-term unemployed in North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a stiff challenge for a new term.
It would make residents eligible for long-term benefits by permitting the state to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Labor. State residents are currently ineligible because of state benefits were reduced below a federal standard.