WASHINGTON – The Senate plunged into an election-year session Monday that promises to be long on political maneuvering and less so on accomplishment, beginning with a slow-motion struggle over legislation to renew lapsed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
“I’m optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the new year will bring a renewed spirit of cooperation to this chamber,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the first remarks of the year on the Senate floor.
Within moments, he pivoted, accusing Republicans of “never ending obstruction” to President Barack Obama’s proposals over the past five years.
A test vote on the unemployment bill – the year’s first showdown – was postponed at the last minute until Tuesday morning at the behest of Republicans, who noted that more than a dozen lawmakers had been unable to return to Washington because of bad weather.
Even then the rhetoric was heated. “It’s transparent this is a political exercise,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, moments before Reid agreed to the delay.
Democratic supporters of the three-month extension of jobless benefits said they were close to the 60 votes needed to advance the White House-backed bill. Their chances hinged on securing backing from at least four Republicans in addition to Sen. Dean Heller of high-unemployment Nevada, a co-sponsor.
The bill would restore between 14 weeks and 47 weeks of benefits to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless affected when the program expired on Dec. 28. Payments, which average about $256 weekly, will be cut off to thousands more in the coming weeks as their initial 28 weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits expire.
The bill is the first on the Senate’s agenda for the year and part of a heaping portion of leftovers from 2013.
House and Senate lawmakers are negotiating privately over legislation to keep the government operating normally when current funding expires Jan. 15. Agreement is expected quickly, since the two sides and the White House reached agreement on an overall spending cap before adjourning for the holidays.
A separate set of talks is on legislation to replace expired farm and feeding programs. And just ahead is a requirement to raise the nation’s debt limit.
The House is scheduled to return from its year-end break Tuesday, and already, majority Republicans have served notice they will continue to challenge Democrats over the health care program known as “Obamacare.”
In a memo to the rank and file last week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said there would be a vote quickly on legislation requiring “prompt notification in the event of a breach involving personal information.”
The health care law is expected to be a central issue in next fall’s election with control of the House and Senate at stake, and Democrats were on the defensive at the end of last year when a major expansion of the program had a debut that was widely panned by lawmakers in both parties and by Obama himself.
The political stakes were immediately on display as lawmakers headed back to the Capitol.
The Senate Democrats’ campaign organization issued a statement predicting, “nearly every Republican Senate candidate in the country will align themselves with the tea party to block the renewal of long-term unemployment benefits, and American families have only begun to feel the painful consequences.”
House Republicans focused their energy elsewhere.
They unveiled a mock “Obamacare” campaign pledge and challenged Democratic lawmakers to sign it.
“The law may be incredibly unpopular as people in my district are kicked off health care and watch as their premiums and costs skyrocket, but I still support this law – and commit that I will continue to support it through Election Day,” it says.
In the Senate, Democrats said the unemployment legislation would benefit the jobless and the national economy as well.
“These are people who want to work, but they need some help,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said of the men and women who have been out of work longer than 26 or 28 weeks. Many, he said, are middle-class, middle-aged people who never thought they would wind up in the situation in which they find themselves.
Reid said that as the unemployed spend the funds they receive, the overall economy grows by $1.50 for every $1 in benefits.
In his remarks, Heller said he would have preferred to have paid for the benefits “in a manner that does not burden our nation with more debt.” At the same time, he said, “for these benefits to simply vanish without giving families the time to plan. … is just not right.”
Republicans appeared split into three camps: Heller and an unknown number of others; a group that is willing to renew the benefits, but insists that the $6.4 billion cost be paid for; and a third group opposed under any circumstances.
Two influential outside organizations opposed the bill, including Heritage Action, which called the program of extended unemployment benefits “ineffective and wasteful.”
At issue was a complicated system that provides as much as 47 weeks of federally-funded benefits, which begin after state benefits, usually 26 weeks in duration, are exhausted.
The first tier of additional benefits is 14 weeks and generally available to all who have used up their state benefits.
An additional 14 weeks is available to the unemployed in states where unemployment is 6 percent or higher. Nine more weeks of benefits are available in states with joblessness of 7 percent or higher. In states where unemployment is 9 percent or higher, another 10 weeks of benefits are available.
The expiration of the federal program on Dec. 28 immediately cut off benefits for 1.3 million individuals, according to estimates provided by the White House and Democrats in Congress.
Another 1.9 million would be affected through the first six months of 2014 as their state benefits expire, according to the House Ways and Means Committee.
The national unemployment rate in November was 7 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21 states and the District of Columbia had joblessness of 7 percent or more, topped by Nevada and Rhode Island, each with 9 percent.