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Jobless benefits extension advances in the Senate

The Senate narrowly voted Tuesday to advance a temporary extension of unemployment benefits to over one million jobless Americans, giving some unexpected momentum in the new year to Democrats and the Obama administration.

The move means that lawmakers are now wrangling about whether -- and how -- the cost of the $6.4 billion program should be offset. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the White House has indicated it will "run the traps" on "reasonable" proposals to pay for the jobless aid extension but that Democrats believe the program should be extended without offsets.  His Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said "there may be a way forward here" if Democrats allow some GOP amendments to be considered. 

The vote to move forward with the legislation was 60-37.  With six Republicans and all present Democrats backing the move to begin formal debate on the bill, supporters reached the 60 votes required to advance it with no room to spare. 

The measure, sponsored by Republican Dean Heller of Nevada and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, would retroactively restore the federal aid payments to about 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans that expired at the end of last year. That aid had previously kicked in after state benefits expired, after about 26 months or more in most states.

Five Republicans joined Heller to support moving forward on the legislation -- Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana and Rob Portman of Ohio. Those lawmakers -- who said they want leaders to find a way to offset the cost of the federal benefits -- may not support final passage of the bill. But their support Tuesday kept the legislation alive despite last-minute doubts that the procedural vote would pass.  

"It was in the balance until the last minute," Reed told reporters after the vote. 

If the final bill does pass the Senate, it's not clear that the GOP-led House will take it up. House Republican leaders have painted the current proposal as fiscally irresponsible. 

In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner said that any extension of the program must be paid for and contain House-backed job creation plans. 

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid objects to a proposed unemployment benefits amendment by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that would delay the individual mandate attached to the Affordable Care Act.

"One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work," he said. "To date, the president has offered no such plan."

Senate opponents of the measure said that the emergency aid program, first enacted during the height of the economic recession, was never intended for continuous renewal and that the aid should at least be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

“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,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee in a statement.

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed paying for the insurance extension by delaying a key mandate in the president’s health care law, a major Republican objective and a clear non-starter with Democrats. That proposal was immediately rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a mere “guise to obstruct.”

Outside conservative groups like the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and the anti-tax Club for Growth  had also urged a “no” vote on Monday’s procedural measure, calling the extension proposal fiscally irresponsible.

Supporters – including the White House – argued that the abrupt end to the benefits on December 28 has plunged the long-term jobless into further desperation and will hurt the American economy as a whole if not reversed by a retroactive extension. 

“This investment in our fellow Americans is one of the most effective ways to spark and sustain an economic recovery,” said Reid, who said Republican opponents of the legislation of “callously turned their backs on the long-term unemployed.”

Shortly after the vote, President Barack Obama urged Republicans in the House and Senate to pass the measure " without obstruction or delay." 

"Voting for unemployment insurance helps people and creates jobs and voting against it does not," he said. 

Top Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Sunday that Republicans will pay at the ballot box if don’t address economic issues like jobless aid.

“The tectonic plates of our politics have changed,” he said during an appearance on ABC. “For the first five years of the Obama administration, the two issues that dominated were health care and budget deficit. This year, dealing with declining middle class incomes and not enough job growth will be the number one issue.”