By Walter Alarkon - 03/23/10 11:16 PM EDT
Senate Democrats plan another short-term extension of unemployment aid this week, setting up a showdown with Republicans demanding it be paid for.
Congress’s last extension of unemployment benefits and COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed expires on April 5. With a 9.7 percent jobless rate and lawmakers scheduled to begin a two-week recess this weekend, congressional Democrats said another short-term extension is necessary soon.
The previous monthlong extension was delayed beyond its expiration date earlier this month by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who insisted that its $10 billion cost be offset. Democrats, who wanted to move the bill quickly through the upper chamber with the use of a unanimous-consent agreement, blasted Bunning and Republicans for endangering unemployment checks that some families rely on, even if it was just for a week.
Bunning later allowed the bill to move quickly after Democratic leaders agreed to allow a vote on his proposal to offset the bill’s cost with a tax credit for paper companies. Bunning’s amendment failed, and the bill passed with 78 senators supporting it.
Senate Republicans on Tuesday said again they don’t oppose extending the benefits but that they should be offset with other spending cuts or tax increases so that they do not add to the nation’s $12.5 trillion debt.
“I think it’s going to have to be paid for,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who voted for the last extension.
When Reid tried to move the 30-day unemployment benefits extension through the Senate last Friday by unanimous consent, Kyl objected because he had yet to discuss it with the Senate GOP conference.
Democrats call any extension of jobless aid “emergency spending,” a designation that exempts the spending from the pay-as-you-go law Democrats passed and President Barack Obama signed into law earlier this year.
GOP senators said Democrats have too readily ignored the pay-go statute. In addition to passing the earlier $10 billion unemployment extension without offsets, Senate Democrats did not pay for a long-term extension of the benefits that would cost $100 billion.
The long-term extension has passed in both the House and Senate, but the two measures have yet to be reconciled and cleared for the president’s signature.
Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) said the next extension shouldn’t be called “emergency spending” since lawmakers knew it was coming and had time to find an offset.
“At some point, enough is enough,” LeMieux said. “If we want to pay for it, I’m all for it.”
Democrats are ready to pounce again on any Republican moves that slow down the jobless aid in the Senate.
“In the end, they’re going to have to decide whose side they’re on,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “We are going to be fighting for those people who are out of work.”
House Democrats are pushing their conference to hash out differences with the Senate on the long-term extension, making its passage unlikely before Congress’s Easter break. The $154 billion House version includes funding for infrastructure projects and fiscal aid for state and local governments, while the nearly $150 billion Senate bill includes a package of business tax break extensions.
“We will work with the Senate on the process and the substance in the coming weeks to ensure that this critical legislation to create jobs becomes law,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).