The Real Reason Unemployment Talks Collapsed In The Senate

Just as a bipartisan deal was coming together, Senate negotiations on extending jobless benefits for 11 months mysteriously broke down Thursday over obscure procedural disagreements.

And the blame game immediately began: Democrats accused Republicans of refusing to take yes for an answer, and Republicans accused Democrats of secretly angling for failure so they can use the issue as a political weapon.

But there are deeper dynamics surrounding the breakdown of talks.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was pushing hard to offer an amendment that pays for a revival of emergency jobless benefits by delaying Obamacare’s unpopular individual mandate for one year (which is projected to save money by reducing Obamacare subsidies and Medicaid outlays, as well as raise insurance premiums). The move was aimed at whipping up fodder for GOP Senate candidates to attack Democrats in the November congressional elections, where the Republicans hope to take back the majority.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), conscious of the political potency of such attacks, exercised his authority to deny Republicans the opportunity to vote on amendments. (In Senate-speak that’s known as filling the tree — a tactic he uses frequently, to howls from Republicans.) Even if the McConnell amendment failed, it would have been a painful vote for vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagan (NC) and Mark Begich (AK). And any defections would have been embarrassing for President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), the chief Republican negotiator on the 11-month deal, fought for McConnell’s push to propose amendments. In the afternoon, when Reid made his move to block GOP amendments, Portman backed out of the agreement.

“The majority leader decided to what we call around here ‘fill the tree,’ which means taking away the opportunity for amendments to be offered,” he said on the floor Thursday. “I’m disappointed in that because I think we were very close to reaching an agreement which would have enabled us to move forward with allowing senators on both sides of the aisle to offer some of their ideas on the unemployment insurance extension.”

Reid expressed his dismay. “It’s hard to understand why they can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. Maybe it’s because they don’t want the legislation passed?” he said, exasperated by the idea that a bipartisan deal had to be conditioned on allowing outside amendments.

The GOP sniped back.

“They don’t want this to pass. What they want to do is … a campaign issue, this sort of rich versus poor, the same old thing they can do, and avoid Obamacare,” said Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Also important is that conservative organizations oppose reviving the long-term unemployment benefits even with a pay-for. “[E]ven if lawmakers attempt to offset this new spending with real cuts elsewhere, they would still be throwing taxpayer money at an ineffective and wasteful program,” said Heritage Action. Those are the groups from which McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2014, and perhaps more importantly the majority House Republicans are taking their cues.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a top Reid ally, told reporters he “would like to see us come back together over the weekend and get a bill that can get 60 votes.”

The Senate recessed on Thursday afternoon for a long weekend. In the meantime, some 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans (and counting) are without benefits after they expired on Dec. 28.

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