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Jobless Benefits May Stay on Congress’ Cutting Room Floor

Extended unemployment benefits for about 1.3 million Americans expired on Dec. 28, and Congress is unlikely to restore those payments swiftly, or at all.

The Senate could try as soon as next week to pass a three-month patch of the program, which would grant payments retroactively. But the short-term bill would not be offset with cuts elsewhere. And even if Democrats can get enough GOP votes to stave off a procedural filibuster — no sure thing — there’s no clear path to garner the Republican support necessary in the House.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he will not take up a bill that does not include commensurate budget savings, even though previous extensions have not been structured this way.

The three-month legislation, championed by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., has one Republican co-sponsor, Dean Heller of Nevada. Reed, reached by phone on Thursday, said he and his allies ramped up conversations, especially at the staff level, as the holiday break waned and the procedural vote scheduled tentatively by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., approached. The Rhode Island Democrat conceded that the window to re-up federal unemployment insurance is small, at least in the few weeks ahead, as Congress also needs to avert another government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

“The timing of the vote is up to Leader Reid because he has a long agenda. We’ve got to get onto the omnibus,” Reed said. “I’m going to work as hard as I can to get it done. The reality is this is a problem that affects the nation, in Republican and Democratic states. … [It] affects a broad number of people and I think my colleagues, when they think about the consequences to their constituents and the fact that this is good for the economy, will realize that.”

According to a report generated last month by the Department of Labor and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, 1.3 million Americans would be affected immediately by Congress’ failure to extend jobless benefits, with another 3.6 million Americans set to lose benefits by the end of 2014. The report also projected that the reduction in job seekers’ incomes would lead to a fall in economic demand, which would cost 240,000 jobs this year.

Senate leadership aides expressed some skepticism that the legislation, even though it is temporary, would get enough support to pass without offsets elsewhere. Democrats decided not to negotiate an extension of the program into a larger budget agreement reached in December. That deal set topline appropriations numbers for the next two years. Democrats also declined to make an issue out of the expiring jobless benefits during the resolution to end October’s government shutdown, when they seemingly had more political leverage over divided Republicans than at any other point last Congress.

Yet Democrats — especially in the House, where supporters are waiting to see what the Senate is able to do — are not inclined to negotiate now. They argue that unemployment insurance extensions have not required pay-fors in the past, and they shouldn’t going forward. In the House, where any extension likely would pass with a majority of votes from the minority, Democratic leaders have not identified any potential offsets.

“There’s nothing in our back pocket,” said the House Ways and Means Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, on a Friday conference call. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., indicated on that same call his unwillingness to discuss offsets at this time.

If the Senate fails to clear a bill — or if it passes legislation that then gets stalled in the House — Democrats are likely to try exerting public pressure on Republicans through press events, interviews and statements decrying the GOP for blocking the legislation. The communications plan is part of a larger Democratic plan to focus on income inequality issues — including unemployment benefits and an increase in the minimum wage — as part of the party’s 2014 midterm elections pitch.

Efforts to “shame” Republicans into action have already begun, especially at the behest of House Democrats, according to aides. Members held two conference calls on the issue during the holiday recess and they have inundated local and national media outlets with data aimed at fueling a flurry of articles and op-eds on the subject.

Still, some Democrats believe the issue of providing financial assistance to struggling American workers is compelling enough to win over Republican support outright.

When asked about the prospects of Republicans blocking unemployment benefits without additional incentives, No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois expressed some optimism that the GOP would get on board. He also said he hopes Republicans will join Democrats in supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage.

“Well, they just might,” Durbin said in December of a potential filibuster. “I hope they don’t. Historically, these were bipartisan measures, as was said in there. The question is whether Boehner’s exhortation to the Republicans to get engaged and govern will follow through in the Senate when we consider those two important issues.”

Heller’s office told CQ Roll Call that he worked over the holiday recess to try to find more GOP support for his short-term bill with Reed, but the Nevada Republican declined to provide an up-to-date whip count for the legislation.

“Sen. Heller will continue to work with his colleagues to solidify support for this legislation,” spokeswoman Chandler Smith said.

Reed also declined to quantify the bill’s support, though an aide said he and his allies are “cautiously optimistic” about getting the 60 votes necessary to beat back a filibuster.

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