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October 24, 2014

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Talks stall in Senate to extend unemployment benefits

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and other Senate Republicans discuss their concerns about the political fight over legislation to restore benefits to long-term jobless workers, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. From left behind Sen. Heller are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., walks to meet with reporters following a Democratic policy luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014.

WASHINGTON — Last week, unemployment insurance was shaping up to be a breakthrough display of bipartisanship in the Senate, after Republicans and Democrats agreed to work through their differences and figure out how to offset the costs of an extension of benefits.

Today, the bill broke down along traditional party lines — meaning Nevadans who were counting on their long-term jobless assistance being restored should hunker down and plan to wait a whole lot longer.

“We were in agreement,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said. “Everybody was working well together, everybody was really being fair on this process. And, unfortunately, it just broke down.”

Heller pinpointed the time of the breakdown to Tuesday’s weekly lunch meetings of Democrats and Republicans.

Heading in, Heller said, he and seven other Republicans who had written an amendment to offset the cost of a three-month extension of emergency unemployment benefits thought they were on their way to making a deal.

But Democrats say that Republicans blew up the road to a deal when they refused to agree to not filibuster the underlying bill. Amendments to the bill would still be subject to the filibuster.

Republicans rejected the proposal outright, calling it everything from a “double standard” to “the reverse of the nuclear option.”

But Democrats argued the Republicans’ recalcitrance was proof that they didn’t really want to extend unemployment insurance at all.

“It sounds as though Republicans want to...have their cake and eat it, too,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “The question is, are Republicans filibustering unemployment insurance benefits or are they not?”

The federal government is out of money to pay for unemployment benefits past the first 26 weeks of eligibility, leaving jobless workers who qualified for extended emergency assistance without checks.

That’s been the situation since Dec. 28, when long-term unemployed first started losing their weekly benefits.

Benefits expire when recipients reach the end of whatever tier of unemployment checks they are currently claiming; there are four tiers of emergency benefits past the initial 26 weeks of state-funded benefits, for a maximum of 73 weeks of unemployment checks.

Already, more than 18,000 Nevadans have seen their benefits disappear.

Lawmakers, especially those in the Nevada delegation, had hoped that the matter would be resolved by now.

They were buoyed last week when six Republicans joined with Democrats to make sure a three-month extension of benefits — legislation written by Heller and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. — made it over its first procedural hurdle.

Senators then moved to negotiate a way to include cost offsets in the bill. Reid and Heller both sounded optimistic that they would reach a resolution.

Instead, the bill hit the floor for a series of votes today with no deal in hand. Predictably, in that environment, the components — from the underlying bill Heller had co-written to the Republican amendment Heller had co-sponsored — either failed to get a vote or failed to advance.

“This has obviously been fixed to guarantee that you get no outcome,” Reid said shortly before the vote, bemoaning that senators were arguing over “a process, compared to helping in a substantive way people that are in deep trouble.”

Even as momentum ground to a halt, Reid and Heller refused to blame each other for the carnage.

Reid complimented Heller on his “admirably good work” on the bill, and Heller told reporters that Reid had been “very fair.”

But the upshot is that the Senate is left with no bill to send to the House, where Republican leaders are not receptive to passing an unemployment bill with no cost offsets.

Congress is going on vacation next week, meaning that if the matter is not resolved in the next several days — unlikely — jobless workers will likely not see their long-term benefits restored until February at the earliest. If, that is, members of Congress are able to reach a deal that thus far has been elusive.

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