Conference committee to negotiate more in private

Congress approved a two-month extension of those items late last year, after a tense showdown between the two parties and chambers.

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House Republicans had initially pressed for lawmakers to enact a full year extension, as their chamber had, before throwing in the towel and accepting the short-term deal.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said after the Republicans’ Wednesday gathering that he was hopeful the GOP would see a promised Democratic proposal on more contentious unemployment insurance issues by tomorrow.

But Kyl could not say whether the Democratic offer, which Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Tuesday would be coming soon, would also include proposed offsets.

Conferees had sparred on Tuesday, at their fourth public meeting, over how to pay for what could be a $160 billion package.

Republicans have said some of their proposed offsets – like continuing a federal pay freeze and rolling back Medicare subsidies for higher-income seniors – had won bipartisan support before.

“At some point, we’ve got to start having a few yeses,” Kyl told reporters.

But Democrats are still pushing for a surtax on millionaires, and have said that the GOP needed to realize that they didn’t want to use their preferred offsets in a short-term measure.

“I think the last meeting we had was a good exchange for Republicans to learn that,” Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a Democratic conferee, told reporters on Wednesday.

With all that in mind, some Republican conferees sounded frustrated Wednesday over the lack of common ground.

“Maybe we shouldn’t extend unemployment any longer than 26 weeks,” Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) said. “As you saw yesterday, the Democrats want nothing to do with paying for any of it. So we’ve got to start talking about how serious we are.”

As it stands, states offer up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance, while the federal government can provide as many as another 73 weeks.

The Senate Democratic proposal is expected to delve into the maximum number of weeks that an unemployed worker could be eligible for benefits, after the House bill passed last year cut that to 59.

The House GOP proposal also allows states to drug test potential beneficiaries, and also has educational benchmarks for certain unemployed workers.

Other Republican conferees on Wednesday stressed that the panel still had time to reach a deal.

“I think we’re all committed to trying to make this a successful conference,” Kyl said. “So I’m not looking at any Plan B yet.”

Upton also said that he thought conferees were getting close to agreeing to include $16.5 billion worth of spectrum sales to help pay for the payroll tax extension.

“We really have made progress,” Upton said.