The Democratic campaign to extend federal jobless benefits for three months was put on hold Wednesday evening as a group of bipartisan lawmakers sought a way to pay for it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) postponed a procedural vote on a three-month bill to buy time for negotiations over an offset.
“There will be no roll call votes tonight,” Reid said on the chamber floor. “Several senators are having productive conversations on possible offsets.”
The shift comes after a weeks-long campaign by Reid, President Obama and other Democratic leaders to pressure GOP leaders into accepting the three-month extension without offsetting the $6.4 billion cost.
Most Republicans have balked at the proposal, opposing either the underlying policy or the lack of an offset, and the provision was excluded from December's bipartisan budget package.
But a procedural vote on the short-term extension hopped a key hurdle Tuesday, when six Republicans, including Portman, joined with Democrats to advance the bill in the face of a filibuster.
Portman made clear that his vote Tuesday was designed only to buy the time for more debate on an offset and broader program reforms without providing Democrats with ammunition to blame Republicans for the bill's failure — a message he amplified Wednesday evening.
The whole idea, Portman said, is to start a "three-month process of reform" to overhaul the unemployment insurance system and possibly provide an extension until the end of the year.
"The reason to extend unemployment alone is to extend it for three months to give us time to come up with a smarter, better unemployment insurance system that includes some skills training," Portman said Wednesday night.
"It seems to me logical that we provide a pay-for for three months put together some reforms with the administration and with the House, and then I think we'd be in a position to see where we go," he said.
At this point, Portman said he figures there will be more Republican interest in supporting a plan that includes job training and benefits to help those who have been out of work for at least six months get the skills they need to find work.
The Ohio senator’s thinking seems to align with that of bill co-sponsor Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who has implored his colleagues to swiftly pass the short-term bill so Congress can work get down to work on a long-term deal.
The postponement marks a setback to the Democrats' jobless benefits strategy, which many thought had gained momentum in recent days. But liberal advocates for the unemployed had feared the short-term extension might undermine the success of a longer-term fix.
Those advocates warned that the three-month package would diminish the appetite for Congress to return to the issue at the end of that window, particularly in a high-stakes election year. For them, paying for the three-month extension might be a small price to pay if Portman can bring Republicans around to support the one-year measure.
Still, Reid had warned Republicans Tuesday that finding offsets to pay for a three-month extension would be difficult — let alone for a year.
“They should understand the low-hanging fruit is gone," he said. "We’ve scavenged every place we can go.”
Reid used the podium Wednesday to amplify his opposition to offsetting the three-month extension of emergency benefits, though he said he'd be willing to accept a one-year extension that is paid for.
“Republicans think this should be paid for — lets find out how they want it to be paid for,” Reid said. “But let’s figure it out in years. … That would be much better than a nickel and dime approach.”
Reid said he would “bet” that a three-month pay-for wouldn’t be acceptable to Democrats.
— This story was updated at 7:21 p.m.