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Democrats Struggle to Finish Up Extenders

Internal Disputes Slow Action on Benefits Bill

Congressional Republicans appeared to hand Democrats a political gift two months ago by casting themselves as the bad guys who wouldn’t provide continued unemployment benefits in a down economy.

But this week, Democratic infighting could put the blame for inaction squarely on the majority’s back.

Unless Democratic leaders can get their act together quickly, unemployment benefits will expire while Congress is on its weeklong Memorial Day recess.

On Tuesday, House and Senate Democratic leaders were still struggling to find the votes to pass a nearly $200 billion tax extenders bill that happens to include the latest extension of unemployment benefits. That extension would last until the end of the year.

“Trying to get it all worked out is easier said than done, I think, but we’re trying,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said, “I don’t know that it’s going to get resolved this week.”

At press time, House Democrats had still not figured out a way to bring the bill to the floor, with defections piling up from lawmakers worried about the bill’s cost, the $134 billion increase in the deficit over the coming decade or the provisions increasing taxes on carried interest that hedge fund managers receive for managing investments.

But House Democrats tried to minimize their internal disputes and pointed the finger at indecision on the Senate side.

One House Democratic aide called it “unreal” that Senate leadership and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) still haven’t figured out what they need in the package to get to 60 votes.

“That was what was supposed to happen over the last month,” the aide said.

House Democrats also would like to have a better idea of what the Senate will accept — something that seems unknowable because numerous Senators said they would need to see what the House produces first.

House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said House Democrats were still hopeful of getting the bill to the floor this week.

Senate Democratic aides said the chamber was mostly just waiting for the House to decide what to do and pass the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to jettison debate on a separate supplemental war spending bill in order to take up the tax bill and, by extension, unemployment benefits, another senior Senate Democratic aide said.

But aides acknowledged that Senate leaders are having similar problems rounding up the 60 votes that they would likely need to overcome a near-certain GOP-led filibuster, and the subject was a contentious topic at Tuesday morning’s leadership meeting, one source said.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin indicated that Baucus has been working to secure the votes of Republicans. “We’ve asked Sen. Baucus to lead us in the Senate to see if there’s a Republican who can be asked to join us,” the Illinois Democrat said. “I know he’s written several provisions of the bill in the hopes that will happen. I don’t know if he has any commitments.”

Asked whether he believes Democrats will secure the votes to move forward, Durbin demurred: “My job is not just whip but worrier. And so I worry about everything until it passes. And so I am worried, and will continue to be, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

However, Reid’s rhetoric Tuesday was tough as he repeatedly threatened to keep the Senate in session over Memorial Day if the tax measure and the supplemental did not get passed.

“We’re going to work until we complete the supplemental appropriation bill and we complete the jobs bill,” Reid told reporters. “We need a way forward on both of those, and I think in the caucus today we had an extremely good discussion of both those issues.”

But many in his own caucus are experiencing sticker shock with the bill, which now includes a $65 billion “fix” in Medicare doctors’ payments, $4.6 billion to settle discrimination suits brought against the government by African-American and Native American farmers, and $1.5 billion in agriculture disaster relief.

“When it’s about spending here that’s not offset, you have to feel uncomfortable,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) expressed similar reservations.

“At some point you’ve got to draw some lines on some of these issues, for example, on the doctors’ fix,” Snowe said. “I think they should limit [the bill], most certainly. I’ve been sorting through all the issues, and they’ve added a number of, you know, expenditures in there, and I just think they’re using it as one of these catchall bills again.”

Snowe suggested offsetting the doc fix with unused economic stimulus funding.

Republicans in general seized on the bill’s costs to the deficit and accused Democrats of being reckless with taxpayer money.

Agitators in the House included Rep. Jared Polis, who said in a letter to his colleagues that the carried interest provisions in the bill would “destroy the jobs created by venture capital backed companies.” The Colorado Democrat suggested shrinking the overall package instead.

And Rep. Gerry Connolly said he would vote against the bill for the same reason that he voted against the House jobs package in December — it adds to the deficit.

“I support all the policy in the bill,” the Virginia Democrat said. “I oppose the bill, sadly and reluctantly, because it’s not paid for. I do not believe we can continue to bring up bills under the justification of emergency legislation that violate the spirit if not the letter of PAYGO.”

If action on the larger tax measure becomes impossible, Democrats held out the possibility of another short-term extension of benefits. But that is also likely to run into problems in the Senate.

The tax bill will enjoy “privileged” status on the Senate floor, which will make consideration in the chamber faster. A temporary measure would be unlikely to arrive under privileged rules and therefore could be filibustered.

Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and other Republicans are likely to insist that any temporary extensions be offset, which Democrats, with some help from Republicans, firmly rejected in the past. The fight could take them into the weekend.

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