Senate delays test vote on unemployment insurance extension
WASHINGTON — (CNN) -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has decided to delay a key procedural vote originally scheduled for Monday on a $6.4 billion plan to extend long-term unemployment insurance benefits to eligible workers for another three months.
The vote was rescheduled for Tuesday.
The timing was changed because several Senators had not yet returned to Washington from their holiday break due to weather-related flight delays and cancellations.
Seventeen lawmakers were not in the chamber, Texas Republican John Cornyn said just before the postponement.
A razor close margin was expected in the first partisan showdown of the New Year in Washington over the proposal to aid some 1.3 million Americans whose jobless benefits expired last month.
The projected outcome of the vote was too close to call, senior aides from both parties said.
Extending benefits is a top political priority for congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama, who is trying to make income equality a centerpiece of his second term.
Many Republicans argue an extension would hurt the economy and act as a disincentive to job creation. Others members of the GOP have signaled they might back one if the cost is offset elsewhere in the budget.
Big moments on Capitol Hill from here on out should be viewed through the lens of next November's midterm elections, especially in the Senate where Republicans are aiming to retake control of the chamber.
All 55 members of the Democratic caucus are expected to support the unemployment extension measure, but it was unclear if enough Republicans would join them to get the 60 votes required to move the measure forward and begin debate.
Democratic aides doubted there would be at least five Republicans who would vote with them, though they acknowledged Republicans could vote to advance the bill even if down the line they decided to block it.
However, Republican aides said they thought there was a real possibility there would be enough GOP votes to take up the bill.
While the aides couldn't say exactly which Senators might vote "yes," they thought there could be moderate Republicans or Senators from high unemployment states to give it the necessary votes.
Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, a co-sponsor of the bill, is the only Republican publicly supporting it.
Democrats see themselves in a win-win position with Monday's vote. They could build momentum for the bill if Republicans back it. They get a political weapon if Republicans don't.
In his weekly address over the weekend, Obama blasted Republicans who "went home for the holidays and let that lifeline expire."
Benefits for the long-term unemployed expired last month after Congress opted not to continue a 2008 recession-era law providing nearly a year of benefits, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, that kicked in when state jobless benefits ran out.
Democrats insist the program is critical to help shore up struggling families and maintain the economic recovery.
Republicans argue that the program -- which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost about $26 billion to continue for another year -- is costly and is a disincentive to looking for work.
The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 7 percent in November, the most recent Labor Department statistics show. That means more than 10 million people were out of work, a third of them without a job for at least 27 weeks.
Republicans also upped the ante over the weekend. Key members, including potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, insisted that an extension must include cuts elsewhere to offset the cost.
"I'm opposed to having it without paying for it," Paul said on ABC's "This Week." "I think it's wrong to borrow money from China or simply print up money for it."
House Speaker John Boehner will insist on such offsets before agreeing to an extension, a spokesman for the Republican leader told CNN.
Obama plans to meet in the East Room this week with people who have lost their jobless benefits.
Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council, echoed the President's sentiments on Sunday and took Republicans to task for what he called the unprecedented step of nixing emergency benefits for the first time in the past 50 years.
"We have never cut off emergency unemployment benefits when the unemployment rate is this high," Sperling told CNN's Candy Crowley on "State of the Union." "(Monday) is actually the day that 1.3 million Americans will go to the mailbox and find that check missing, the check that they rely on to put food on their table."
During his weekly address, Obama also underscored that failing to pass an unemployment benefits extension could result in a drag on the economy.
"It actually slows down the economy for all of us. If folks can't pay their bills or buy the basics, like food and clothes, local businesses take a hit and hire fewer workers," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid railed against Republican insistence for cuts in other areas to pay for a jobless benefit extension.
"We have never offset emergency spending. That's foolishness," Reid told CNN's Alison Harding.
Reid is optimistic about reaching the 60 votes on the procedural motion, but conservative interests are applying heavy pressure and keeping score.
The Club for Growth urged all Senators to vote "no" on the proposal and cited the lack of spending offsets.
"Congress should end the federal unemployment insurance program and return the authority back to the states, which already have programs in place," the group said in a statement.
"Absent this, Congress should pay for this extension by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget. After six years, an extension can no longer be called an 'emergency' with any credibility. There is plenty of waste in the federal budget from which to find an offset," it said.