WASHINGTON -- Legislation to bring back unemployment insurance for over a million long-term jobless Americans failed to clear the Senate on Tuesday, leaving no clear path forward.
Republicans complained Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wouldn't let them try to amend the legislation, and Reid responded that Republicans had been whining about procedure to obscure their opposition to restoring the benefits.
"The question is: Are Republican filibustering unemployment benefits or are they not?" Reid said on the Senate floor before the vote.
"This has obviously been fixed," countered Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Benefits lapsed for 1.3 million workers on Dec. 28, thanks to congressional inaction. Each week since the lapse, another 70,000 laid off workers reach the end of their state benefits, which in most cases last six months, and find that the federal benefits that previously helped millions of workers won't be helping them. Lawmakers knew about the looming deadline for a whole year but did nothing until it was too late.
Marcia Carroll of Staunton, Va., is one the people whose benefits stopped last month. She said she'd lost her job as a warehouse materials handler in July. Since losing her unemployment insurance, she's already begun missing payments.
"Today I got three cancellation notices: my car insurance, my cable bill, my light bill," Carroll, 43, said in a phone interview Monday. "I don't have a fancy house, I don't have no credit card bills. [When I had the benefits] I could pay what I needed to pay. When you go from $340 a week to zero a week you eat a lot of peanut butter."
Carroll said she's applied for warehouse jobs, retail jobs and temp jobs, and companies have either told her she's overqualified or not called back at all. Between filling out online applications this week, she's been watching Congress on C-SPAN.
"None of them care about the working person," she said, calling the congressional debate "a little pissing contest."
The dispute centers on how to pay for the aid. Republicans have insisted the cost of the benefits be offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, but they balked at the pay-fors Reid suggested last week.
Senators also disagree over how long the federal government should maintain the benefits. They cast votes on two separate pieces of legislation on Tuesday. The first was a one-year extension that would be paid for by cutting the benefits by $8 billion, as well as by extending sequestration cuts to mandatory spending into 2024 and reducing the ability of those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance to simultaneously receive unemployment benefits. That bill failed to clear a procedural hurdle by a vote of 52 to 48.
The Senate then voted on a second bill to extend the benefits for three months without paying for the extension. The cloture vote on that bill failed too, 55 to 45.
Republicans had never voiced much support for a yearlong reauthorization.
"I have real, real, real hesitancy going beyond three months," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who joined Democrats in a procedural unemployment vote last week, said earlier on Tuesday. "To take it out for a full year on the other side of an election, I'm not convinced that's where we should go."
Tuesday's debate turned decidedly away from the merits of the legislation and toward procedural matters. Hoping to find a path through a Republican-led filibuster, Democratic leadership offered a proposal in which each party would be able to put forward five amendments to the bill. Each of those amendments would have to earn 60 votes. After that, the bill would be considered by a simple majority vote.
Though McConnell would have been able to choose his own five amendments, he balked at the proposal, insisting that Reid could simply block McConnell's choices and substitute his own bill.
Other Republican leaders said that it was difficult for the party to oppose the measure on procedural grounds, but they felt that the public would view Reid's approach as patently unfair.
"I think sometimes when you get bogged down in defending process, you lose people real fast," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). "I think it is very hard to punch through with an argument to the American people about procedures and process in Washington, D.C."
Thune added that the fact that Reid had not offered Republicans more than four amendments since July would resonate with the American people. "I think Reid is going to have more problems on his side over time too, because you can't just defend that," he said. "That's not the way this place is designed to work."
Senate Democrats had a different take. Walking briskly outside the chamber, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that Republican leadership had changed their demands.
"They said the reasons they have blocked bills is because they don't get amendments," he said. "We are giving them amendments and they are still blocking the bills."
So is unemployment insurance definitely dead in the Senate?
"No," he said. "I think it will get worked out."