Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Dean Heller says extending funding for unemployment benefits for three months is the “right thing to do,” but an important question now is whether enough other Senate Republicans agree.
The Senate is scheduled to vote this morning on a bill Heller drafted along with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to extend emergency benefits for jobless workers.
If all 55 Democrats vote for the legislation, Heller needs just four Republican to follow his lead and support extending benefits, which expired Dec. 28, to avoid a filibuster threat.
But many Republicans have objected to the lack of “pay-fors” in Heller’s legislation, which doesn’t try to offset the cost of the three-month extension, about $6.5 billion.
“I, too, understand the concerns about the cost of these benefits. I would prefer to see them paid for … but in the meantime, I propose that we pass this short extension now,” Heller said on the Senate floor Monday. “Helping those in need should not be a partisan issue. Providing a limited social net is one of the responsibilities of the federal government.”
Heller and Reed have been trying to answer critics by promising to discuss cost offsets and possibly limiting future availability of unemployment benefits in the next three months.
But Heller is the only Republican thus far that has spoken out in support of his bill. Heller’s spokeswoman would not say Monday night whether the senator knows which, if any, other Republicans are expected to support the procedural motion on the legislation.
Senators were expecting to vote on the measure Monday night, but as they discussed the bill, the environment on the floor wasn’t exactly warm.
“If this was anything other than a political exercise, the majority leader would have rescheduled this vote,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, charging that Democrats were trying to hold a vote when 17 senators were still out of town.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promptly pulled the vote, postponing it until today.
“I hope a few reasonable and empathetic Republicans will join my colleague from Nevada and help us advance this bill,” Reid said earlier Monday.
Nevada and Rhode Island are tied for the worst-off states in terms of local unemployment; both states posted 9 percent unemployment rates in November.
Because of high unemployment, out-of-work Nevadans are entitled to a maximum of 73 weeks of benefits, including 26 weeks of state-funded benefits and four additional multiweek tiers of federally funded emergency benefits.
The Department of Labor reported that about 16,800 Nevadans lost benefits they would have otherwise qualified for when federal funding for the additional tiers of benefits expired last month.
Heller and Reed’s bill would retroactively pay missed benefits to people whose unemployment checks were caught up in the suspension.
Should the legislation clear today's procedural vote, it will still be subject to a few days of debate and require a majority vote to pass before going to the House, where Republicans are sharply divided on the issue.
House Speaker John Boehner has said he is willing to have the House consider extending unemployment benefits but has not commented specifically on the Senate bill.