Unemployment talks stall in Senate

The Senate left town Thursday without a deal for renewing federal employment benefits after bipartisan talks over an offset reached an acrimonious impasse.

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Prospects for forging an agreement that could pass the upper chamber with bipartisan support seesawed throughout the day, with Democratic leaders expressing optimism that a deal was close.

But hopes for a breakthrough were dashed when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered up a mostly Democratic-driven plan that would cover the $18 billion cost of extending the federal benefits through November.

Senate Republicans were further incensed when Reid told them he would not allow any amendments to the plan.

“I have been waiting here for more than 24 hours for a reasonable proposal by my Republican friends to pay for this. We don’t have one yet," Reid said on the floor.

Republicans lashed out at Reid, arguing they had put ideas forward, and all they wanted to do was sit down and work out a bipartisan agreement.

In the past 24 hours, Reid shifted his focus to passing a one-year deal, creating some distance between the three-month plan Republican supporters said they wanted.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said it is still his aim to produce for a short-term paid-for bill that includes some structural changes to the unemployment insurance program designed to help the long-term unemployed get skills training while they look for a new job.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who along with Portman supported the procedural motion to debate the bill this week, said he was disappointed and surprised by Reid’s maneuver.

"We think we have some very constructive proposals that would make the bill better and would achieve bipartisan support," Coats told reporters.

"But the majority leader today essentially shut down, not just Republicans, but his own party."

At this point, Coats said he would not be willing to end debate on the unemployment bill unless there are some changes between now and next week.

Coats said the upper chamber could have been done with the bill on Thursday if amendments would have been allowed.

"We weren't trying to delay this bill," he said.  

"We just sat here for 36 hours or more waiting for Harry Reid to decide what to do and then he comes down and says we're delaying, we're obstructionists.

"He was the obstructionist in this case."

Reid's $18 billion proposal would take a portion of Portman's idea to end duplicate payments for disability, unemployment insurance and trade adjustment assistance for savings of $1 billion.

Reid also would slightly cut the number of weeks offered to the long-term unemployed and would add another year of sequestration.

He said bill co-sponsor Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) "had done a yeoman's job," but it was time to move on to other issues.

"The time is now to fish or cut bait," he said.

Reed, fellow co-sponsor Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) hammered out the proposal.

"This takes care of it for the good part of this year," Reid said.

Reid argued he was offering up a "pretty good deal" to Republicans, and he was "pretty disappointed that nothing is quite good enough" for his GOP colleagues.

He suggested the Republicans wanted to offer a slew of amendments to "do nothing but whack ObamaCare."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested the proposal was all a part of a Democratic plan to take to the Sunday news shows and complain about how Republicans are refusing to pass a bill to help the 1.3 million who lost their benefits at the end of the year.

Passage of an 11-month measure would mean Congress would likely be faced with another renewal right after the midterm elections.

Coats and Portman said they were both looking more closely at the plan Reid offered but figured there is no way Republicans would accept extending the sequester cuts into 2024.

Still, Republicans and Democrats emerged from evening votes sounding hopeful that they could work out a deal to renew federal unemployment benefits.

"Maybe, let's hope they [talks] can be put back together over the weekend," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday night.

"I don't think it's irreparable," he said.

Coats and Portman each said they held conversations with their colleagues during votes to discuss a way forward.

"I hope we're still able to work out something," Portman said.

"The bill is not DOA yet."

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