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Boehner Angles to Kill Jobless Benefits As Senate Moves Forward

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AP Photo / Charles Dharapak

The bill moved forward on a 60-37 margin, without a single vote to spare -- Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) couldn't make it due to the weather. The Republican yeses were Sens. Dean Heller (NV), who co-sponsored the bill, Kelly Ayotte (NH), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Susan Collins (ME), Rob Portman (OH) and Dan Coats (IN).

Now comes the hard part. Many senators believe the extension, which costs $25 billion for a year, must be paid for. They have yet to agree on an offset, and it'll be difficult to find bipartisan savings. Some of the GOP senators who voted for cloture may vote against the actual bill. And even if the Senate passes it, they have to get any such legislation through the Republican-led House.

"I would caution people: that's a lot easier said than done," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters after the vote, saying he hopes Republicans are serious about wanting to come to a deal. He said the benefits should be extended with or without an offset, adding that Democrats are happy to negotiate a pay-for.

"Now we have to collaborate. We have to be constructive," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who co-sponsored the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), seeking to give Republicans a pretext for opposing the continuation of the popular program, offered an amendment to fund the extension by delaying Obamacare's individual mandate for one year -- a proposal he knew would be a nonstarter for Democrats. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) immediately rejected it.

"I have to admit I'm a little surprised at the fervor with which the majority is dedicated to reviving the expired emergency unemployment benefits," McConnell said, "after they ignored the issue all of last year."

In response to the vote, Boehner made clear that the House wasn't interested in extending the jobless benefits. He argued that the 26-week status quo for unemployment compensation was satisfactory. (The emergency benefits program, first passed in 2008, extends that to 99 weeks.)

"Far too many Americans are still unemployed in President Obama's economy. For each of them, it’s a personal crisis that we cannot overlook. Getting these people back on their feet starts with a strong safety net – six months of unemployment benefits – that we continue to have in this country," Boehner said in a statement. "But the ultimate solution to joblessness is more jobs."

While he didn't explicitly rule out an extension, he put the onus on Democrats to find an agreeable offset, and his statement emphasized that the program "is put in place only in the worst economic conditions and is designed to be temporary," adding that the "unemployment rate is lower today than it was when emergency benefits were allowed to expire following the recession of the early 1980s."

The Senate procedural vote was a defeat for conservative activist groups Heritage Action and Club For Growth which urged lawmakers to scuttle the bill. But they may yet have the last laugh because the issue is far from over.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he opposed the cloture vote because Reid refused to accept GOP amendments. McCain called Reid "the dictator" and accused him of engaging in "dictatorial behavior."

Senators are negotiating ways to offset the cost of the extension, said Collins, who declined to reveal any details.

Schumer said the political environment has changed and that the focus has moved from deficit reduction to helping the middle class.

"The tectonic plates in our politics are moving," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters. He added: "This idea that people don't want to work is fundamentally misreading the American character."

About The Author

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Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.