Barack Obama courts GOP ahead of uphill Senate vote
By: Burgess Everett
January 6, 2014 02:53 PM EST
The chances of the Senate moving forward with legislation that would restore expired unemployment benefits dimmed Monday.
The bill’s fate hung in the balance all day as Democrats desperately sought Republican votes to advance the bill. In a sign of how seriously the White House is taking the issue, President Barack Obama personally worked the phone lines.
Obama spoke with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) about the need to extend the benefits. The White House also reached out to the office of Sen. Mark Kirk, but the senator said he wasn’t able to connect with Obama. The Illinois Republican said Obama’s outreach was evidence that the Senate Democrats don’t have the votes.
“He doesn’t normally like calling us,” Kirk said of Obama.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) abruptly decided to delay a procedural vote, which had been scheduled Monday evening, until 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
Democrats need five Republicans to join them to advance the legislation, which would bring back the benefits that expired on Dec. 28 and extend them for three months. So far, there are just two Republicans publicly committed to supporting the legislation as written: Collins and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who co-sponsored the measure with Sen. Jack Reed.
The effort to attract Republicans appeared to falter as GOP lawmakers were nearly universal in their criticism of the bill for not covering the $6.5 billion cost of the extension.
Democrats are scrambling to win the vote on Tuesday but even if they fail, there’s a sense that they’ll win politically by painting Republicans as opposed to benefits for the long-term unemployed. Democrats have indicated they’ll bring the legislation back to the Senate floor repeatedly if it fails.
Still, there is at least some reason to be optimistic that lawmakers might later reach a consensus.
Collins convened a meeting of the bipartisan 16-member “Common Sense Caucus” ahead of the vote — and Kirk said offsets would likely help rally the group’s eight Republican members to support the bill. But he still wasn’t sure the bill would get across the finish line — and Democrats have warned they may force Republicans to reject their proposal more than once.
“They wish to have Republicans vote no so they can bash them in the next election. They’re not really interested in ever offering a real offset,” Kirk said.
Though she planned to vote for the bill, Collins said she told Obama to “help us find an offset for it.” Collins declined to say how Republicans prefer to pay for the legislation because she did not want to “preempt” talks among Senate Republicans who are trying to find a way to pay for the legislation.
“I also talked with him about restructuring the program. What I argued is that if someone is unemployed for more than a year it is very likely that the job that they once had is not coming back. And that it would be better if as a condition of continued unemployment benefits for us after a year, for us to link it to a job training program,” she said. “He seemed very interested.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he wouldn’t support the legislation, joining several Southern Republicans from high unemployment states that will oppose the bill for both procedural and fiscal reasons.
“Unfortunately, this bill is being jammed through, has not been considered in committee, and will not be able to be amended on the floor,” Corker said in a statement before the vote. “Spending $6.5 billion in three months without trying to find a way to pay for it or improve the underlying policy is irresponsible and takes us in the wrong direction.”
Democrats don’t believe there is time to find a pay-for bill given the dire situation for the 1.3 million Americans knocked off benefit rolls on Dec. 28.
Earlier in the afternoon, Democrats were bearish on a late breakthrough.
“I hope a few reasonable and empathetic Republicans will join my colleague from Nevada, Sen. Heller, and help us advance this bill,” Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday as the Senate convened for its first full session of 2014.
Reid delayed the vote after Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted the absence of more than a dozen senators.
Democrats’ task was made more difficult on Monday as conservative groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America urged senators to vote “no” and announced they will include the vote in annual scorecards.
“Congress should end the federal unemployment insurance program and return the authority back to the states, which already have programs in place,” said Andy Roth of the Club for Growth in a message to lawmakers.
“If lawmakers attempt to offset this new spending with real cuts elsewhere, they would still be throwing taxpayer money at an ineffective and wasteful program,” Heritage Action said.
Even if the Senate approves the extension, it would likely be a nonstarter in the Republican House, where leadership is insisting the bill be paid for.