A top Senate Democrat proposed Tuesday to give unemployed people jobless benefits through Memorial Day instead of risking another cutoff in just three weeks.
Max Baucus, D-Mont., proposed the additional time as the Senate officially began debate on legislation to revive a federal unemployment insurance program for people who have been out of a job for more than six months.
Ohio Republican George Voinovich emerged as a key figure as Democrats and Republicans continued to quarrel over whether federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed should be paid for with borrowed money. Voinovich signaled he will side with Democrats to provide a crucial vote that would ensure the measure's speedy advance into law — even though it would add about $18 billion to the deficit.
Baucus said House-Senate negotiators need more time to iron out a separate and more complicated bill to extend jobless benefits through the end of the year and revive expired tax breaks enjoyed by both individuals and businesses. A pending bill would set a May 5 deadline.
Extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless has prompted a battle between Republicans promising to battle the deficit and Democrats insisting that the government continue to borrow the money to pay for benefit checks averaging $335 a week.
The GOP move is unprecedented and more than half of Senate Republicans voted just last month for an earlier debt-finance extension of jobless benefits. But the issue of deficits and debt is of increasing concern to voters who in only seven months will determine if Republicans take back control of Congress.
Four Republicans helped Democrats defeat a GOP filibuster on Monday: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine; George Voinovich of Ohio and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. But their votes are not guaranteed on subsequent procedural hurdles, including a vote to waive budget rules and add the cost of the jobless benefits to the $12.8 trillion national debt.
Democrats need to pick up at least one Republican to advance the measure. Last month, in a similar situation, Collins was that single Republican as she helped Democratic leaders maneuver their way through a tight spot. Now she says she will insist that the temporary unemployment benefits bill be "paid for" so as to not increase the deficit.
But it's sounding as if Voinovich may step in to help Democrats.
"All I know is that I've got two guys on my street that are unemployed," Voinovich said in an interview. "This unemployment (compensation) is a big deal. I hate borrowing the money for it. But ... it's allowed people to keep their families together."
Voinovich said Tuesday evening that he's likely to side with Democrats to keep the measure on track as GOP leaders seek to derail it because it runs astray of budget rules.
A key vote to waive those rules — requiring 60 votes in the 100-member Senate — is slated for midday Wednesday. Democrats presently control the chamber with 59 votes, so Voinovich's vote is crucial.
Unemployment compensation has ended for more than 400,000 people whose benefits lapsed but who would have otherwise been eligible to reapply for additional weeks of compensation if the program's authority had not ended last week. More than 5 million people continue to receive the extended benefits, but 200,000 people each week stand to lose them if the impasse continues.
The cost of the extended unemployment benefits program is about $7 billion a month.
Several other programs have also lapsed, including federal flood insurance, higher Medicare payment rates for doctors and generous health insurance subsidies for people who have lost their jobs.
The expiration of the programs means that the newly jobless aren't eligible to sign up for health insurance subsidies but that people currently covered under the so-called COBRA law retain the benefit. People living in flood plains can't sign up for flood insurance, while the Medicare program has delayed payments to doctors rather than imposing a 21 percent cut.
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