WASHINGTON — The new year looks a lot like the old one in the Senate, with Democrats scratching for votes to pass an agenda they share with President Barack Obama, and Republicans decidedly unenthusiastic about supporting legislation without changes.
At the dawn of the 2014 election year, the issue is unemployment benefits, and a White House-backed bill to renew benefits that lapsed last month for the long-term jobless.
The three-month measure is the leading edge of a Democratic program that also includes raising the minimum wage and closing tax loopholes on the wealthy and corporations. The Democratic agenda also includes measures designed to demonstrate sympathy with those who suffered during the worst recession in decades and a subsequent long, slow recovery.
With bad weather preventing more than a dozen senators from traveling to Washington on Monday evening, a showdown vote was postponed until Tuesday.
But not before Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics.
"It is transparent that this is a political exercise, not a real effort to try to fix the problem," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a protest followed immediately by Majority Leader Harry Reid's agreement to delay the vote.
It was unclear whether the delay would affect the fate of the bill.
Democratic supporters of the three-month extension of jobless benefits need 60 votes to advance the White House-backed bill, and their chances hinge on securing backing from at least four Republicans in addition to Sen. Dean Heller of high-unemployment Nevada.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told reporters she would vote to advance the bill, in the hope that Republicans would have a chance to offer changes that would offset the cost and prevent deficits from rising.
Other Republicans weren't as optimistic.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said he would vote the other way. "Unfortunately, this bill is being jammed through, has not been considered in committee and will not be able to be amended on the floor," he said. "Spending $6.5 billion in three months without trying to find ways to pay for it or improve the underlying policy is irresponsible and takes us in the wrong direction," he added. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a self-styled spending and budget watchdog, said people should be asking whether additional jobless benefits amount to an "incentive or disincentive" for people to find work. Yet, he said in an interview Tuesday on the Fox News Channel, the Obama administration has been "deceitful" about the repercussions of opposing the bill.
"So now we're going to have a political issue," Coburn said. "You don't care if you don't extend this."
As drafted, the bill would restore between 14 weeks and 47 weeks of benefits averaging $256 weekly to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless who were affected when the program expired Dec. 28. Without action by Congress, thousands more each week would feel the impact as their state-funded benefits expire, generally after 26 weeks.
"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 weeks. He said many 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.
But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said without steps to offset the legislation's expense, all of the $6 billion or more it costs would add to deficits. He called it "just a total violation of promised fiscal responsibility."
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."
Nevada's unemployment was measured at 9 percent in November, tied with Rhode Island for the highest in the nation.
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.