By Mike Lillis and Vicki Needham - 01/07/14 08:00 PM EST
Senate Republicans on Tuesday showed they don’t want to be cast as election-year villains in the partisan fight over unemployment benefits.
Six GOP senators voted to advance legislation extending federal unemployment insurance payments without offsetting the $6.4 billion cost, giving Democrats the minimum 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“Why end the process from even starting?” Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), one of the “yes” votes, told reporters after the debate. “If Harry [Reid] wants to not give us an opportunity to offer amendments, to debate reforms, to accept a pay-for, then Democrats will have to answer the question.”
The proposal still faces high hurdles, as some of the Republicans who voted “yes” warned the costs must be covered to win their support in the next round.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that, while she has talked to President Obama and several of her Democratic colleagues about the viability of potential pay-fors, she has not made a final decision on whether to vote for a bill without them.
“I haven’t decided but [offsets are] certainly my preference,” Collins told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol.
House Republican leaders said the Senate vote would not change their approach. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) emerged from a GOP leadership meeting Tuesday evening to say that they will wait to see what the Senate can pass — if anything — as a final bill.
Democrats, for their part, hope to use the fight to highlight the parties’ different approaches to shrinking the gap between wealthy and working-class people. They’re pointing to the GOP’s resistance to both a clean unemployment extension and a minimum wage hike to portray Republicans as out of touch with workers — and to try to save their Senate majority.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the Tuesday vote provides him with some optimism that Congress could work together to increase the $7.25 minimum wage for the first time since 2007.
“We want to replicate that kind of effort in 2014,” he told reporters after the Tuesday morning vote.
The focus of the unemployment debate now shifts to the tough search for offsets — a thorny issue in Washington’s polarized political environment, given that the most non-controversial pay-fors were used long ago.
Those dynamics are not lost on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was quick Tuesday to highlight the difficulty of finding savings, even to fund popular programs like jobless benefits.
“Right now they [Republicans] should understand the low-hanging fruit is gone — we’ve scavenged every place we can go,” Reid told reporters in the Capitol. “We know Republicans will not close long-standing tax loopholes.”
Reid emphasized that he’s open to “serious” offset offers from Republicans, but said Democrats won’t entertain certain provisions like efforts to dismantle ObamaCare.
“Sen. [Mitch] McConnell [(R-Ky.)] says he wants to pay for extending these unemployment benefits ... by whacking ObamaCare. That’s a non-starter,” Reid said. “If they come with something that’s serious, I’ll talk to them.”
An aide with the Senate Finance Committee said the panel stands ready to assist leadership as it tries to work through finding offsets.
The Senate could vote as early as Thursday on the next procedural hurdle to the bill — a vote that would also require 60 supporters to advance.
If it clears the Senate, the jobless measure would move to the House, where GOP leaders have shown little enthusiasm for extending the emergency jobless program, which expired on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million unemployed workers who have exhausted their state benefits.
Many conservatives are lining up against such an extension, saying the long-term payments discourage the unemployed from seeking work.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said he remains open to an extension of the program, as long as the costs are offset and the measure is accompanied by other economic priorities favored by the Republicans. But he also said the onus is on the White House to come up with such a proposal, suggesting the Republicans have no plans to do so themselves.
“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” Boehner said in a statement. “To date, the president has offered no such plan.”
House Democrats have pounced on the Republicans’ lack of urgency in the face of the expired unemployment aid. They say that if Boehner is serious about his support for the underlying policy, he should take the lead on proposing the offsets.
“He should not throw the ball to anybody else. Ohio is suffering like every other state in terms of the number of unemployed people looking for work,” Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. “It isn’t up to the White House, it’s up to the Speaker ... I don’t think he should say it’s somebody else’s obligation.
“I don’t think it should be offset,” Levin added. “If the Speaker thinks so, let him propose some cuts.”
House Democrats last month offered a plan that would offset the costs, but the GOP rejected it.
Bernie Becker, Russell Berman and Erik Wasson contributed.