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Unemployment benefits bill clears Senate hurdle

Updated Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 | 9:44 a.m.

WASHINGTON — An uncommon coalition of five Republicans joined Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to support a critical procedural motion on a bill to extend unemployment benefits through the Senate, avoiding the threat of the bill being filibustered to death.

But the bill will still have to clear one more filibuster hurdle before it can earn the Senate’s seal of approval and go to the House. To get there, lawmakers are buckling down for some hard negotiations in the next few days.

The main sticking point between Republicans and Democrats over the unemployment insurance legislation authored by Heller and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., was that the bill failed to include “pay-fors” — measures to offset the estimated $6.5 billion cost of a three-month extension.

This morning, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell argued that many Republicans “would like to see [unemployment insurance benefits] extended...if we could find a way to extend them without actually adding to the national debt.”

He proposed ending the Obamacare individual mandate for one year as a means of offsetting the cost, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promptly struck down.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called it “obviously a non-starter.”

But Democrats, who had insisted on passing the bill as an emergency measure — thereby avoiding the need to offset costs — will likely have to accept at least some limited pay-for scheme to keep enough Republicans on board to clear the next procedural hurdle on the bill.

“The second-best choice is finding a reasonable pay-for that can work on both sides of the aisle,” Schumer said.

The best option, he said, would be passing the unemployment insurance extension bill with no changes. “But I would caution people, that’s a lot easier said than done,” he said.

Democrats, however, were careful not to sound too pessimistic about negotiations.

“Having secured a very positive bipartisan vote getting us on to the measure, we want to go forward in good faith and good spirit,” Reed said.

Many Democrats were bracing for the bill to fail today’s procedural vote.

“I think members of the Senate are increasingly hearing from constituents,” Sen. Sherrod Brown said. “If they were out in public, they were hearing form people whose unemployment benefits had expired.”

Notably, however, the group of Republicans who joined Heller come from states that don’t have nearly the scale of a jobless crisis as Nevada, where the November unemployment rate was 9 percent.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Dan Coats, R-Ind., Susan Collins, R-Me., Lisa Murkowski, R-Ak., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, joined Heller and Senate Democrats to pass the measure 60-37.

The November unemployment rate in those states ranged from 5.1 percent (New Hampshire) to 7.4 percent (Ohio). The national unemployment rate was 7 percent.

Democrats made a point of pointing to Heller’s conservative record as they appealed to other Republicans to join his lead in supporting the short-term extension of unemployment benefits.

“Join with Dean Heller and help get this legislation passed,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this morning.

Democrats also tipped their hat to Heller after this morning’s vote.

“I have to personally thank Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. He stood up, responding to his constituents,” Reed said. “He provided great leadership, he did it with thoughtful, consistent advocacy, and we’re here today in large part because of his efforts.”

According to the Department of Labor, about 16,800 Nevadans lost their unemployment benefits when federal funding for additional tiers of emergency benefits expired on Dec. 28. Nationally, the number of workers who lost their benefits is estimated at 1.3 million.

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