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Senate Unemployment Negotiations Descend Into Chaos

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WASHINGTON -- One of the Republicans who Democrats say they're wooing for an unemployment insurance deal said he hasn't heard from Democratic leaders in weeks.

"At no time over the past few weeks has the Democratic leadership reached out to Senator Coats or his staff," a spokesman for Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said in an email to reporters.

The statement came one day after The Huffington Post reported that Senate Democratic leaders had been eyeing Coats and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) as potential supporters of legislation to restore the benefits, which expired in December for more than 1 million workers who've been unemployed longer than six months.

Coats voted to advance an unemployment bill in January but voted against similar legislation in February, saying it did not contain adequate reforms to the unemployment system or acceptable cost offsets. That he has not heard from Senate Democratic leadership in several weeks suggests that lawmakers in the upper chamber aren't pressing very hard to get a deal.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide told The Huffington Post that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to cobble together the "asks" of those Republicans who had indicated they wanted to support a bill -- including Coats and Kirk. Collins has voted in favor of past measures to extend unemployment insurance. She said Tuesday she is talking to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle but declined to be specific about those conversations.

HuffPost told Coats spokesman Matt Lahr that Democrats said they'd been using Collins as an intermediary and asked if that made sense to him. "No," he said, "our statement stands."

In the statement, Lahr stressed that Coats "has consistently said that any extension of the emergency unemployment insurance benefits program must be paid for and include measures to reform the program."

So far, Democrats have been unable to satisfy those demands. Their last unemployment measure failed by one vote.

Finding a final Republican vote has been a real challenge for Reid. He has tried different incarnations of the bill to tempt lawmakers into supporting it -- adjusting the duration of the benefits, the ways to pay for it, and the reforms made to the insurance system. Nothing has led to the 60 votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster.

The efforts to convince Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to back the bill are emblematic of the difficulty Reid has encountered. Portman agreed to work on a short-term extension of unemployment insurance in order to buy time to craft a larger bill. But he refused to support a longer, one-year extension if it didn't include reforms to the system and create a worker training program.

Portman also refused to support a year-long extension of unemployment insurance that was paid for, in part, by extending sequestration cuts to Medicare into 2024 -- not because he opposed those cuts, but because they fell outside the 10-year window needed for the Congressional Budget Office to consider them legitimate.

When the CBO baseline was adjusted in early February, that 10-year window shifted to include 2024 spending and cuts. Portman's issue with the bill was resolved, and an aide to the senator said, "since the new CBO baseline was issued earlier this month" to include the year 2024, Portman now supports "extending the mandatory sequester to pay for UI."

But by then, Reid had moved on, suggesting that the reauthorization of unemployment insurance be paid for with pension smoothing, a policy many economists consider a gimmick. Portman objected again, saying that the proposal would not be paid for in the 10-year window. Meanwhile, the Senate used the Medicare pay-for to reverse unpopular cuts to military pensions. Portman voted for that measure. But it meant that a pay-for both he and Reid supported was no longer available to pay for unemployment insurance.

Even if the Senate gets its act together, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has signaled no interest in restoring long-term unemployment insurance.

Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.

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