WASHINGTON -- Just as it appeared the Senate was poised for a breakthrough on extending federal unemployment insurance for another year, things took a turn for the worse, and lawmakers left the chamber Thursday afternoon without holding a vote.
Three of the six Republicans who'd helped the Senate advance an unemployment bill through the first 60-vote hurdle on Tuesday complained bitterly that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had declined to let them offer amendments. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked if there would be votes on GOP alternative language, Reid said there would not.
The day's events imperil the already slim chances that an unemployment extension gets through the next 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, let alone through Congress as a whole. More than a million long-term unemployed Americans, meanwhile, have been left hanging since the end of last month.
Karen Myers of Cantonment, Fla., is one of those individuals left waiting for answers. She said she lost her job supervising customer service for a hospital in July. She had just switched to federal benefits last month after running out of state benefits, so she was at the very beginning of her federal unemployment compensation claim when she learned the aid would end.
"I have six grandchildren, so Christmas was very small because I don't know if I'm going to get any money after January," Myers, 57, said in a phone interview.
When Myers began receiving federal benefits in December, she had the impression there would be several months of assistance.
"I think there should be a better way," she said. "I don't know what that is. There should be a better way to handle these types of things."
The deal negotiated in the Senate on Thursday would have reinstated the benefits for one year, unlike the three-month extension that the chamber advanced Tuesday. In an attempt to win Republican support, Reid and other Democrats, including Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), agreed to slash the duration of the benefits, saving $8 billion, and adopted a version of a Republican proposal to prevent Americans from simultaneously receiving unemployment insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance. The rest of the money used to pay for the extension would have come from prolonging the sequestration cuts to mandatory spending accounts by one year.
"In this proposal, there has been a desire to address the concerns of the Republicans and Democrats," Reid said. "Is it perfect? Of course not."
Republicans, however, were hardly satisfied with the parameters of the deal. They saw the sequestration concession as an insufficient and insincere way of paying for the extension, since it wouldn't be achieved until 2024. They also complained that Reid had watered down the proposal to prevent people from double-dipping on disability and unemployment insurance. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who had pushed that amendment forcefully during negotiations, had wanted more stringent restrictions. His version would have saved the government $5.4 billion. The Reid proposal saved $1 billion.
"Sen. Portman was not looped into conversations or negotiations with Sen. Reid about this today and just learned about this on the floor," a Portman aide said.
In addition to policy complaints, Republican senators had procedural gripes. They took to the floor to complain that Reid was refusing to allow them to offer their own amendments, sparking a lengthy, acrimonious debate on procedures. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced an amendment to undo Reid's blockade on amendments. It failed.
Even if it ultimately passes the Senate -- the next vote could be on Monday -- an unemployment deal faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested Thursday the need to extend jobless benefits is less pressing than it was before, since the economy has improved, but he said he's willing to consider a measure that's offset.
"Clearly the emergency isn't as bad as it was. But for those families that have lost their jobs and have been unable to find new jobs, it is a crisis for them," Boehner said. "I have not talked to the president or Democrat leaders about this issue because I've laid out what needs to happen, and they've yet to come forward with any plan."
A Boehner aide said there had been no new developments in the House on the unemployment insurance front on Thursday.
As he left the Senate floor, Portman sounded a hopeful note.
"We're still working on it," he said to reporters. "It's not DOA yet. "
This story has been updated to include comment from Rob Portman.