Senate renews jobless aid push

The Senate will take another shot at passing legislation this week that would renew a federal unemployment benefits program although Republican complaints about the process could hamper progress. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set up a cloture vote for Thursday on a new measure that would provide a three-month reauthorization of the emergency program that is paid by extending a “pension smoothing” provision.

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But Senate Republicans said Tuesday they are still working toward an agreeable plan and were chafed that Reid is resisting their call for amendments. 

“I think that we’re still making progress, albeit more slowly than I would like, but there has to be an opportunity for amendments to be offered by the Republicans,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said on Tuesday. 

Collins, who has worked closely with a group of Democrats and Republicans to forge a deal, said amendments are a “reasonable request” and she hopes Reid will agree to allow them. 

But whether these complications can be resolved by Thursday remains uncertain. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Reid called up a bill that would extend unemployment insurance for three months, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he wouldn’t agree to the unanimous consent request unless Reid allowed an open amendment process.

“We have a number of ideas on this side of the aisle to promote economic growth,” McConnell said Tuesday. 

“So I ask the majority leader to modify his request to have an orderly, open amendment process.”

Instead, Reid filed cloture on the latest version of the measure.  

“We will not agree to an unlimited amount of amendments … which again is a different way to say we don’t care about an unemployment insurance extension,” Reid said Tuesday about Republicans.

Meanwhile, Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) were trying to build support for their short-term plan, which would provide retroactive benefits, as Democrats head to a daylong retreat at Nationals Park on Wednesday.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who also has been involved in crafting the legislation and has offered up several pay-fors, said he hadn’t seen the most recent version but is concerned about the pension offset. 

Portman has pushed for an offset that would save about $1.2 billion to end duplicate payments of unemployment insurance, disability and trade adjustment assistance. 

Earlier on Tuesday, Reed said the offset is one that has been used by both parties in the past and shouldn’t be controversial. 

Democrats noted on Tuesday that 24 Republicans, including McConnell, voted for the 2012 bill that included the pension offset.

Without the extension, employers would make higher pension payments because low interest rates require them to make higher than normal pension contributions.  

The offset would extend pension smoothing relief for four years by allowing companies to use historic interest rate averages in calculating their pension contributions.

The latest Reed proposal also includes a provision from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would stop millionaires from collecting unemployment benefits.

Portman and Collins also each mentioned wanting to tackle the veterans cost-of-living adjustment issue by eliminating cuts to the program that were included in the budget deal completed in December. 

The emergency program for those who are out of work for at least six months expired at the end of December and left 1.3 million without benefits. 

Democrats argue that, in the 38 days since the expiration, nearly 1.7 million are now affected by the program’s lapse. 

A group of Senate Democrats and Republicans spent the better part of January trying to reach an agreement but to no avail. 

Instead, the Senate failed to pass a three-month, $6.4 billion extension that wasn’t paid for and a second bill for 11 months that was paid for with a mixture of offsets including a yearlong extension of sequestration. 

— Ramsey Cox contributed.