One day after clearing a key Senate hurdle, legislation to renew long-term jobless benefits stood at a crossroads on Wednesday with gridlock beckoning from one direction and the prospect of compromise from the other.
After a day of mixed signals, Majority Leader Harry Reid delayed any action on the measure until Thursday, saying he wanted to allow time for unspecified compromise efforts.
Reid, D-Nev., also appeared to suggest that the focus shift away from a three-month resurrection of the expired program. Instead, he suggested efforts turn to a full-year renewal that could be paid for, a key demand from deficit-conscious Republicans.
For much of the day, officials had said Reid was likely to bar Republicans from seeking changes, a step that probably would derail the bill.
For their part, GOP lawmakers made the case for offsetting the bill's cost, and offered options to do so.
"Why wouldn't we pay for it if we could?" said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of several members of his party backing options to cover the estimated $6.4 billion price tag of the three-month bill.
The proposals ranged from delaying a requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance under the new health care law to preventing immigrants in the country illegally from claiming a certain type of tax break for their children. A third would prevent individuals who qualify for Social Security disability payments from also receiving unemployment benefits.
Reid labeled the first two options as "a little scary," saying one would "take a whack out of Obamacare" and the other would "go after children, children."
Democrats said they opposed paying for the three-month legislation, given that the program expired on Dec. 28 and an estimated 1.3 million long-term unemployed suddenly lost benefits averaging $256 a week. They said similar extensions have been passed repeatedly in the past without offsetting spending cuts to prevent deficits from rising, including five times when President George W. Bush was in office.
The dispute played out as Republicans sought to trigger a more fundamental debate about the Senate's role in government and its management under Reid.
In lengthy remarks, the GOP leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said that in recent years the Senate has become a 'hollow shell" of the institution envisioned in the Constitution. He added that major legislation "is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the majority leader's conference room and then dropped on the floor with little or no opportunity for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight."
McConnell said that in the past several months, Reid has only allowed Republicans to have roll call votes on four amendments, a number so low he called it "stunning." At 45 minutes, the speech was unusually long, and his rank and file listened from their seats while he spoke, in a sign of support for his message.
Democrats were absent, except for Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who presided at the time.
McConnell's remarks were direct, yet generally free of the sort of intensely heated rhetoric that is prevalent in Congress. While he said Republicans bear some of the responsibility for the state of affairs, he placed ultimate blame on the Democrats.
"A common refrain from Democrats is that Republicans have been too quick to block bills from even coming to the floor. What they fail to mention is that more often than not we've done this either because we'd been shut out of the drafting process or there wouldn't be any amendments."
It was unclear what compromise talks Reid was referring to, although other officials said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had been in touch with the White House on the issue. Additionally, the two leading supporters of the three-month bill, Republican Dean Heller of Nevada and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, were also continuing to talk.
As drafted, the unemployment legislation would restore benefits averaging $256 weekly to the estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless Americans who were cut off on Dec. 28. Duration of federal coverage generally ranges from 14 weeks 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.
Six Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday in voting to advance the measure over a procedural hurdle, but generally made it clear they were doing so on the expectation that they would be given the chance to seek changes.
A seventh, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, told reporters he could think of only one reason Reid wouldn't permit votes, "and that is if he wants a problem." That was a reference to the widely held view among GOP lawmakers and aides that Democrats wanted to pin political blame on their party for refusing to renew the program.
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