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Unemployment Extension Vote Will Be A Nail-Biter

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WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will have no margin for error when he brings a new bill reauthorizing unemployment benefits to the Senate floor for a vote this month.

Five Republican senators have signed on to the measure, which would apply the benefits retroactively and pay for the roughly $9.5 billion cost through an accounting gimmick known as pension smoothing, raised custom fees in 2024 and an adjustment to payment procedures for single-employer pension plans.

Early indications are that those five -- Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) -- will be the only Republicans to support the bill. A spokesman for Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who supported early compromises to pass unemployment insurance, said that he would not back this bill because it lacked "credible reforms."

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), another Democratic target, suggested she wasn't too into the deal.

"My hope is there will be further debate and opportunities to amend this proposal and add real reforms to ensure that it better helps the chronically unemployed get back on the job," Ayotte said in a statement Friday.

The compromise unveiled on Thursday night would end benefits for individuals with gross incomes in the preceding year that exceeded $1 million. The provision is more about symbolism than savings, as the IRS has estimated only $20 million or $30 million in unemployment payments have gone to millionaires in past years, a small fraction of what the government spends on benefits. That provision was pushed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is expected to oppose the compromise deal despite its inclusion.

Coats and several other Republicans have pushed measures that would ban unemployment claimants from also receiving Social Security Disability Insurance; the new legislation omits such a stipulation.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the party was still hopeful that an additional Republican will offer his or her support, which would give Reid a little more cushion. But if that member doesn't materialize, then the Nevada Democrat will need all of the 54 other Senate Democrats to back the bill in order to clear the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster.

Clearing that bar will require maintaining a delicate balance between the ideological wings of his party. On Friday, Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) office confirmed he would support the bill, removing one potential defector from the ranks. But the Senate Democratic leadership aide said that the main concern at this juncture would be that some of the more liberal members of the party might find the deal insufficient, in part because it would only last through the end of May.

"I think it will be a moot point, because we will get all 55," the aide said. "I think at this point everybody just wants to get something passed."

Even if the Senate passes an unemployment bill, however, it's unclear how the Republicans who control the House would respond. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was too soon to comment.

Benefits for more than 2 million Americans hang in the balance. On Dec. 28 Congress let federal long-term unemployment insurance expire after it had been in place since 2008. The benefits, which Congress routinely provides during recessions, kick in for workers who use up six months of state compensation. If the compromise legislation becomes law, all the people who missed checks would receive retroactive lump-sum payments.

Even though the unemployment rate has declined, the rate of long-term joblessness is still higher than it's been in any recession since the Great Depression.

UPDATE: 1:45 p.m. -- In a boost to Reid's chances of passing the bill, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) allayed Democratic leadership's concerns in announcing his support for the compromise.

"I am pleased that there is a bipartisan deal to restore the federal unemployment extension, and that assistance will be restored retroactively to those Americans who have struggled to make ends meet in the months since the expiration of the program late last year," Harkin said in a statement passed to The Huffington Post. "To be clear, I would have preferred a longer extension, because this agreement means that we will need to revisit the issue in May, when this deal is about to expire. But in the meantime, this deal will help millions of Americans, including more than 14,000 Iowans, keep a roof over their heads and food on the table while they continue to look for new work."

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