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Weather forces delay on jobless aid vote in Senate

With cold temperatures grounding flights throughout much of the country Monday, the United States Senate has delayed a key test vote on a temporary extension of unemployment benefits to over one million jobless Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abruptly postponed the Monday afternoon vote to 10:30 a.m. ET Tuesday after more than a dozen senators were unable to travel to Washington, D.C. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said on the floor that 17 senators had not yet been able to make their way back to Capitol Hill as thousands of flights nationwide were cancelled due to cold weather. 

After Cornyn called the vote "a political exercise" and said it should be postponed "to a later time when we could have a real debate," Reid requested the rescheduling and no senator objected. 

It is still unclear whether backers of the measure may not have enough support to bring the bill to the floor for debate.  

President Barack Obama is expected to speak at the White House following the vote to urge Congress to reach a compromise that will extend emergency unemployment insurance.

The three-month extension, sponsored by Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, would retroactively restore the federal aid payments to long-term unemployed Americans that expired at the end of 2013.  Those benefits previously kicked in when state jobless aid ran out, meaning that about 1.3 million Americans who had been receiving benefits for more than 26 weeks – or even fewer, in a handful of states – lost them on December 28.  

The test vote tomorrow will require 60 votes to pass. As of Monday, the GOP’s Heller and moderate Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were the only Republican members who publicly supported moving forward with the aid package, along with 55 Democratic or Democratically-aligned members.

Supporters of the extension have been scrambling to win over more Republican support.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., right, accompanied by fellow Senate Democrats, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, to discuss efforts to "boost the economy and prevent Americans from abruptly losing their jobless benefits at the end of the year."

“Hopefully, hopefully we can get four more Republicans,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Reid said that Heller – who stands squarely in the middle of the Senate GOP in terms of his conservative vote record – isn’t always a dealmaker on economic issues.

“Remember, Dean Heller is not some maverick that is out spewing socialism,” Reid said. “Here is a guy who is really a conservative person and he wants to extend unemployment benefits.”

But so far, the most likely GOP supporters have been silent or said they’ll vote against bringing the legislation to the floor. The conservative Heritage Foundation and anti-tax group Club for Growth both urged members to vote no, saying that the program should at the very least be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

That's something the White House says it's not open to for the three-month extension, calling the situation "urgent" for the jobless.

"The president believes we should pass this right away with no strings attached," said Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, during a briefing with reporters. 

President Barack Obama pushed passage of the benefits extension during his two week vacation in Hawaii. In a radio address Saturday, Obama said that the GOP reluctance to extend the aid amounts to “punishing families who can least afford it.”

Even if Reid and Heller are able to muster enough votes to pass the jobless aid extension, House GOP leaders have little appetite to pass it, saying the current plan isn’t fiscally responsible.

While there may be no silver lining for Americans who remain out of work and without federal unemployment benefits, Democrats believe that there might be a political upside for their party if the extension fails.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” top Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York said the “tectonic plates” of American politics have shifted over issues like income inequality and jobless aid.

“If, on the first day of the new session, the Republican Party says they won't even support an unemployment benefit extension … they're going to show themselves so far out of the mainstream, it's going to hurt them in the election,” he said.

 

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