Senate Dems block GOP amendments to unemployment bill

Senate Democrats defeated an attempt by Republicans to vote on amendments to the long-term unemployment insurance extension.

Republicans tried to table pending amendments that Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed to “fill the amendment tree” but they didn’t have the votes — the motion failed 46-50. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine) voted with Republicans.

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Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) then tried to challenge the ruling of the chair that Republican amendments were not in order to be considered. But the Senate voted 67-29 to table his appeal.

“The other side of the aisle is not serious about unemployment benefits,” Reid said. “They’re trying to kill unemployment benefits.”

Earlier Wednesday, the Senate voted 61-38 to end debate on a plan that would extend the federal unemployment insurance (UI) program for five months. The Senate is expected to pass the bill Thursday.

Action in the House appears unlikely, however, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he wouldn’t consider the Senate deal because it doesn’t include job-creating measures.

Reid used H.R. 3979, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which passed the House last month, as a legislative vehicle for the UI extension.

The House bill aims to exempt volunteer firefighters and EMTs from being considered full-time employees under ObamaCare's employer mandate to provide insurance. 

Reid used that bill as a way to more easily send the UI extension bill back to the House, especially with Senate Democrats, many of whom are facing tough reelection races, demanding that tweaks be made to ObamaCare.

Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) put forward the Senate plan that would provide retroactive benefits to more than 2 million people who lost their benefits after the program expired on Dec. 28.

Senate Republicans tried several times Wednesday to call up their amendments on issues, such as repealing parts of ObamaCare, approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, enforcing the E-verify system and stopping Environmental Protection Agency regulations, but Democrats objected every time saying the amendment jeopardized passage of the bipartisan legislation.

“It appears as if we’re not able to get any amendments that actually create jobs and opportunities for people," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the votes.

Republicans blocked three previous attempts to extend UI benefits, but this time, the legislation has five Republican co-sponsors so it is expected to pass Thursday.

The Senate measure would use several offsets to pay for the nearly $10 billion cost of the measure, including pension smoothing provisions from the 2012 highway bill, which were set to phase out this year, and extending customs user fees through 2024.

The Senate deal also includes an additional offset allowing single-employer pension plans to prepay their flat rate premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC). 

The measure would also prevent millionaires and billionaires from receiving the federal benefits. 

The proposal includes language to strengthen re-employment and eligibility assessment (REA) and re-employment services (RES) programs, which provide help to unemployed workers, when they enter their 27th week of benefits.

The emergency federal program kicks in once workers who have continued looking for a new job exhaust their state-level benefits, usually after 26 weeks.