WASHINGTON -- Unemployed Americans who lost their benefits just after Christmas shouldn't count on those checks starting to flow again soon, even after the Senate took its first step Tuesday toward reauthorizing the emergency jobless aid.
That's because it really was just a first step -- a procedural vote that allows debate to proceed -- and five of the six Republicans who backed it say they want to find a way to pay for the approximate $6 billion cost of extending benefits for three months. The bill inched forward in a 60-37 vote, hitting the exact number needed to advance.
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), perhaps the biggest surprise among Republicans voting to advance the bill, said he wanted to debate the issue because he knows there are “some people out there who legitimately have tried to find work.”
But he has two conditions for supporting a final bill.
“My bar is if we're going to add additional spending to programs, they need to be offset,” Coats said, meaning cuts would have to be found elsewhere in the budget. "I would also like to see some reforms in the program, so we have better assurance that the money is going to people who legitimately need it, not the people who are using this as a long-time, lifetime welfare program.”
Asked if he could support a bill without offsets, he said only, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
Similarly, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters that she voted to go ahead because the issue is vital to debate, but she also wants offsets.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tried to slip past reporters after the vote, then stopped briefly to say he voted to advance the bill “so we can engage in the debate on how to pay for this.”
When asked if he could support extending unemployment benefits without paying for them, he said “it depends,” without going into details. He said he has some ideas on how to offset their costs, but that he’s still working on them.
The Senate is expected to take up the next key vote on Thursday at the earliest, to clear another procedural hurdle before voting on final passage. If the Republicans who voted to proceed on Tuesday decide they aren't happy with where the debate is going, they could still kill the measure with a filibuster then.
Until recently, high unemployment was seen by Congress as an emergency, and the costs of extended unemployment benefits beyond the normal 26 weeks were simply added to the debt. But for the last couple of years, Republicans have been demanding -- and sometimes getting -- cuts elsewhere to pay for the emergency relief.
The fact that the bill is moving ahead in the Senate sets up a debate where both sides are mutually suspicious of the other's motives. Democrats suspect the GOP is fundamentally opposed to extending the benefits, and will offer only pay-fors that won't pass. Republicans suspect Democrats will follow a similar strategy so they can make the GOP look bad.
"My worry is that they weren't that interested in finding a pay-for because they wanted a political issue because they think this polls well," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who opposed moving ahead even though unemployment in his state stands at 8.9 percent. "So the discussion in there [on the Senate floor] was not that serious. Because the point was to put Republicans on record on what [Democrats] thought was an unpopular vote."
On the other side, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the "best choice" is just to pass the bill as is. He added that Democrats would negotiate on paying for the measure, but seemed doubtful Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would do that in good faith, noting that McConnell offered up a measure to cut Obamacare as an offset.
"Second best choice: finding a reasonable pay-for that can work on both sides of the aisle," Schumer said. "I would caution people that is a lot easier said than done. I am worried we may be being somewhat walked into a cul-de-sac by our colleagues who don't have an intention of doing that."
"We hope this is a good-faith negotiation," Schumer added, suggesting Democrats would resist the temptation to offer offsets that they know will fail. "We do not want a Mexican standoff where we put in our pay-for and they put in their pay-for."
Even if the Senate works out a deal, it would have to be matched in the House. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reaffirmed his position Tuesday that he would not move ahead on anything that does not come with cuts elsewhere.
“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work," Boehner said in a statement. "To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it."
Even if the three-month extension passes, it still leaves Democrats far short of their goal of passing a year-long extension, which would cost around $25 billion.