As Congress raced to leave Washington for its Easter recess, a Republican senator blocked a stopgap bill to extend jobless benefits, saying its $9 billion cost should not be added to the national debt.
As a result, some people who have been out of work for more than six months will at least temporarily lose benefits. Newly jobless people won't be eligible to sign up for generous health insurance subsidies.
At the center of the battle is Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who's insisting that the measure be "paid for" so as not to add to the nation's $12.7 trillion debt.
"What we are doing is stealing future opportunity from our children," Coburn said Thursday.
Republicans offered legislation to finance the monthlong extension of jobless benefits by rescinding unspent money from last year's economic stimulus bill. The effort was killed on a party-line vote.
Democrats repeatedly sought speedy Senate approval of a House-passed measure that would extend jobless benefits through May 5, but Coburn objected. Republicans said Senate negotiations produced a compromise that didn't pass muster in the House.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would attempt to retroactively bestow the jobless benefits when it returns from its spring recess April 12.
The practical effect of the lapse in benefits would be limited if they are awarded retroactively. But labor advocates say it produces bureacratic nightmares for state labor departments and that trying to restore the lapsed benefits is easier said than done.
Reid had the option of keeping the Senate in session to force a vote to try to break through the GOP blocking tactics but instead will revisit the issue in 2 1/2 weeks.
The clash comes less than a month after Republicans abandoned a similar battle that led to an interruption in unemployment benefits eligibility for some people and a two-day furlough for about 2,000 Transportation Department employees.
A stopgap law enacted early this month extends though April 5 unemployment insurance for people who have been out of a job for more than six months, provides health insurance subsidies for the jobless and protects doctors from a sharp cut in Medicare payments.
But another short-term extension of the jobless benefits is needed while House and Senate Democrats work through negotiations on a long-term measure that would provide them through the end of the year. Those talks have slowed, prompting Democrats to move to extend benefits for an additional month.
Last month, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a similar extension of jobless benefits, but Republicans ended up on the losing end of a public relations battle and Bunning backed away.
The House passed the stopgap bill last week by a voice vote.
Democratic leaders say that jobless benefits are an emergency and don't need to conform to the new pay-as-you-go budget law, which requires new benefit programs to be offset with spending cuts or tax increases so they don't increase the deficit.
"We really believe that the unemployment situation is an emergency economic situation. Republicans do not accept that," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the majority whip. "They want to cut off unemployment benefits or pay for it with stimulus funds that are creating jobs."
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