Hopes Dim For Long-Term Extension To Jobless Benefits

The Senate is still struggling to find a way to pay for an extension of unemployment benefits for those out of work for 26 weeks or more. Majority leader Harry Reid agreed to bring up five Democratic and five Republican amendments in hopes to winning enough Republicans over to get to the 60 votes needed for passage.

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Just a week ago, six Republicans joined Democrats to clear the path for a bill to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed. But a compromise on how to pay for the extension still eludes the Senate. About 1.3 million people saw their benefits expire after December 28th, and that number keeps growing every week Congress fails to extend the payments.

For more, we're joined by NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. And, Ailsa, late today, Senate Republicans rejected two proposals to extend unemployment insurance. But as we mentioned, we had six Republicans vote about a week ago for the legislation to move forward. So what happened there to the support?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, they agreed to move forward last week but not without conditions. Most of that group of six Republicans made it very clear that they would turn around and work to defeat the bill if lawmakers didn't find a way to pay for the extension. So, the two questions over the last week have been how should we pay for it and how long should the extension last. Now, Democrats say if they have to find a way to pay for these benefits, they want a longer-term bill, more than a three-month extension. So they came up with an 11-month plan that would be paid for largely by extending cuts to Medicare providers a decade from now.

CORNISH: And so Republicans wouldn't accept that plan. Why not?

CHANG: Well, two main reasons. They say that it's not a real cut when you spend money now, and the corresponding cut doesn't come until 10 years from now. And many Republicans also wanted to see a shorter-term extension. So the six of them who voted earlier to let the bill proceed, they tried to cobble together their own proposal to replace the Democratic one. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rejected that today, largely because the Republican plan only lasts for three months and the way they found the cuts undid some of last December's budget agreement.

There was also a dispute over how many Republican amendments would get votes on the floor. So everything kind of blew up this afternoon. And that's why Republicans moved to defeat today's bills. One of them who's been leading the negotiations is Susan Collins of Maine. And she says today is just going to have to be the start of more talks.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: Our interest is in coming up with a solution, not scoring partisan political points. And I am still hopeful that while it does not look very good right now, that we can come together and accomplish that goal.

CORNISH: You know, Ailsa, that goal is one they hoped to accomplish last week. So when realistically are they going to get to this?

CHANG: Not soon. The Senate needs to move to vote on spending bills this week, and then this chamber goes on recess next week. And then that brings us to late January before this chamber can even return to this issue.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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