Bipartisan stimulus extension fizzles


A bipartisan push to extend a number of provisions in the $787 billion stimulus fizzled Tuesday, with senators opting to move ahead with a simple extension of jobless benefits instead.

Democrats and Republicans had hoped to use the bill extending unemployement benefits by at least 14 weeks as the vehicle to extend other provisions set to expire this year. Senators from both parties had offered amendments that would have prolonged the $8,000 first-time homebuyer's tax credit and a tax provision allowing small businesses to write-off taxes on operating losses during the recession.

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But senators voted 87-13 to cut off debate to the unemployment insurance bill and prevent consideration of amendments Tuesday evening. Final passage is expected this week.

Democrats pushed to cut off debate Republicans insisted on amendments that would have required unemployment insurance recipients to be screened for their immigration status against a federal database and would have restricted federal funding for the Association of Community Organizing for Reform Now (ACORN).

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said that the extra amendments would have risked a delay in getting benefits to those hit hardest by the recession.

"We want to do this and if we add all kinds of stuff, then it goes back to the House and who know what happens," Brown said.

The Senate has voted several times already this year on similar ACORN and E-Verify amendments to appropriations bills, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted. Reid and Democrats sought to portray Republicans as opponents to further unemployment benefits during a recession, even though GOP senators have said that they could support an extension.

"The Republican response to helping the unemployed is two letters -- No," Reid said on the floor.

He told reporters that he wants to work with Republicans to extend the unemployment benefits and produce a healthcare bill, but he suggested that they're not willing partners.

"When I came here, we had Republicans and Democrats work together," Reid said. "But you can't dance if your partner is unwilling to get off the chair. It's like when I was in high school, I wanted to dance but she wouldn't get up."

The two parties had tried to work together on the other stimulus provisions. Reid was pushing for a package of six amendments to be considered with the unemployment benefits bill. It included several proposals to extend the homebuyer's tax credit that was sponsored by Reid, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). The tax credit's supporters have said that it has helped spur on home sales, which have increased this year. Isakson's amendment, backed by Dodd, would extend the credit to June and would cost $16.7 billion.

Reid's amendment package also included two proposals by Baucus and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) extending the small business tax provision, known as the net operating loss carryback. The provision's backers, which included the National Association of Manufacturing and National Retail Federation, argued that it would help businesses save money during the crucial holiday shopping season and thus save jobs.

But Republicans objected to Reid's amendment package and offered their own. The GOP package called for the ACORN and E-Verify amendments and a proposal to pay for the unemployment benefits extension through bailout or stimulus money. The Democrats' bill would offset the $2.4 billion extension of insurance benefits by prolonging the federal unemployment tax, which is paid by all employers and is set to end this year.

The House has passed a bill that would extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks in the states with jobless rates above 8.5 percent. The Senate's version extends the benefits by 20 weeks in the states with the highest jobless rates and by 14 weeks in other states.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said last week that he expected several GOP members to back the extension of the unemployment insurance.

A Republican aide dismissed Democratic attacks, noting that they sought an agreement with Democratic leaders to allow amendments.

"Not only did Democrats wait until last Thursday to show us their proposal, they also blocked all attempts at an agreement from the beginning, objecting to every to every single one of our suggestions," the aide said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) decried the Democrats' decision to block amendments as "power politics."

"I was prepared to discuss some sort of compromise, but we need some amendments," Sessions said.