Senate test votes postponed on unemployment bill

WASHINGTON – The Senate postponed a pair of test votes on stalled unemployment legislation on Monday as Republicans and Democrats sought a compromise to restore benefits to 1.3 million long-term jobless workers who lost them abruptly late last year.

The postponement came after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada met privately with two Republicans on the measure, the first in what looms as a series of election-year bills in which the political parties vie for support from economically strapped voters.

Officials in both parties said that in the meeting with Reid, Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Susan Collins of Maine proposed adding a provision to the bill to restore full cost of living benefits to military retirees under the age of 62. Lawmakers voted to curtail the increases late last year, and now face enormous pressure from veterans groups to reverse themselves.

As drafted, the legislation would restore federal benefits for the unemployed who have exhausted their state-provided support, generally after 26 weeks. An earlier program expired on Dec. 28, cutting off about 1.3 million people hurt by the recession who had been receiving an average $256 weekly.

In remarks on the Senate floor, Reid did not mention the veterans, but said he hoped an agreement was possible on the unemployment issue.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he wanted any compromise to give the GOP the ability to have Senate votes on GOP proposals before final passage. He did not outline any specific proposals, but has previously recommended paying for extended unemployment benefits by delaying a requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance under President Barack Obama's health care law.

Little more than an hour after McConnell spoke, Heller, Collins and six other Senate Republicans released a statement saying they had met. Referring to the Democrats, they said, "We continue to negotiate in good faith, and we are all encouraged that we are making progress on a package that could pass with bipartisan support."

Officials said the proposal advanced by Heller and Collins to Reid would renew the expired jobless benefits for three months and, reverse the change in cost of living increases for retired veterans as part of a $12.5 billion package that would be fully paid for gradually over a decade. It also would require the Senate to vote on a small number of GOP proposals to change the legislation.

The agreement to postpone the test votes until at least Tuesday afternoon prevented the current standoff from hardening, because there was little prospect that supporters of the bill could have amassed the 60 votes needed to prevail.

Officials said Heller and Collins recommended making quick offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget to make sure deficits don't rise as a result of the jobless legislation. After initially proposing to let deficits rise as unemployment benefits were paid out, Democrats late last week recommending extending existing cuts already in effect in some benefit programs by one year, until 2024. They included a 2 percent reduction in fees paid to hospitals and other Medicare providers — a proposal that Heller and Collins did not put in their own offer.

Also at issue is the duration of any new program.

Democrats called for an 11-month bill late last week, while Heller and Collins proposed three months instead.

The officials who described the proposals spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss them on the record. Aides to Heller and Collins refused to provide confirmation.

The mood was testy earlier in the day, when Reid said Republicans "have been very effective at creating gridlock" and "obsessed with taking pot shots" at the health care law.

A few moments later, McConnell blamed Democrats for the hold-up that has blocked action on the legislation to date.

Until the weekend, he said, Reid "only seemed to want to extend this program — without really paying for it, without doing much of anything to help create private sector job creation and without creating opportunities for targeted training" for the unemployed.

Under the expired program, the long-term jobless were entitled to a maximum of 47 additional weeks of benefits, depending on the unemployment level in their states. Under a revised bill Reid advanced late last week, the total would fall to a maximum of 31 weeks.