Updated at 5:00 p.m.
Negotiations to extend emergency unemployment benefits to out-of-work Americans have fallen victim to a larger Senate debate over the rights of the minority party, making it more and more likely that the Senate will leave town this week without restoring benefits to the 1.3 million people that lost them when they expired on Dec. 28.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has struggled to attract Republican votes as the GOP – still fuming about a rules change he pushed that diminishes their filibuster power – moved the goalposts on what it would take for GOP lawmakers to support an extension of the program.
Two procedural votes on different variations on an extension failed Tuesday afternoon, sending lawmakers back the drawing table.
At first, Senate Republicans coalesced around the demand that they would not support continuing the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program if it were not paid for. Then, as Reid rounded up both Democratic and Republican proposals that would pay for an extension for varying lengths of time, Republicans began complaining that they were not allowed to offer amendments to the legislation.
Reid offered five amendments for each side on Tuesday, as long as the threshold for including an amendment was 60 votes and final passage of legislation a simple majority of 51 – virtually guaranteeing that no Republican amendments would pass. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejected the offer right away, telling reporters that it “strikes me as fundamentally unfair.”
The offer, McConnell said later on the Senate floor, is “guaranteed to fix the result in such a way that doesn't give the minority a fair chance.”
“Who is to say a number of our amendments might be appealing to members on the Democratic side? That's probably why the majority leader wants it to be at 60 because he's afraid they may pass,” McConnell said.
Reid maintains this is all a distraction from the ultimate issue.
“The question is, are Republicans filibustering unemployment insurance benefits or are they not?” he asked. “We can't set up a system where the minority of the senate that opposes unemployment insurance benefits gets both an amendment process where they can offer these poison pill amendments and then the minority of the Senate that opposes the bill can still kill the bill.”
With McConnell rejecting the Democratic offer, Reid proceeded with a procedural vote on an amendment from Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., that would extend EUC benefits for 11 months, paid for by an extension of sequester cuts until 2024. When that failed, he moved for a vote on the original three-month, unpaid-for extension of benefits authored by Reed and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. That failed as well.
There is a group of six Republicans negotiating a compromise on extending benefits but they have not released a full-fledged proposal yet. For now, senators will likely step back, move on to working on a larger omnibus spending bill that needs to be passed to keep the government running.
In the absence of anything else to do, Democrats have grown increasingly critical of their Republican colleagues for the many demands.
"Many of these people are on the verge of desperation. They don’t have the modest 300 or so dollars a week that will help them pay the rent, put gas in the car that will help them go to a job interview, have a cell phone to help them get the information they need….thats what we should be focused on and regrettably I think my colleagues took their eye off those Americans who earned these benefits and deserve these benefits," Reed said at a press conference after the votes. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the number two Democrat in the Senate, added, "The bottom line is our Republican colleagues don’t seem to get it."