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Ill-fated unemployment benefits extension on verge of Senate passage

A bill to extend unemployment insurance benefits cleared a final test vote in the Senate by the thinnest of margins Thursday and is headed for a vote on final passage Monday.

The vote to clear the final procedural hurdle passed 61 to 35, suggesting the bill will clear the Senate for good when the final vote occurs on Monday. Unfortunately for Senate Democrats, it scuttles a carefully-coordinated schedule for the coming week that would have had lawmakers voting on a paycheck fairness bill on Equal Pay Day - the perfect example of promoting pocketbook issues ahead of the midterm elections.

The extension of unemployment benefits has been an uphill battle in the Senate, with a series of compromises derailed by a fight over amendments. And while there enough Republicans who helped craft the most recent compromise to ensure the bill will pass, the voting process has been glacial.

The most recent fight was about amendments, just like the previous ones. Republicans hoped to add a series of measures in a catch-all amendment to the bill they say would boost job growth, like approving the Keystone XL pipeline, reducing taxes on small businesses, and eliminating the 30-hour workweek rule in Obamacare.

"This is an amendment that seeks to take the causes of joblessness head on - rather than simply treating the symptoms of a down economy," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday. "But the larger point is this: The Senate needs to be allowed to function again. When members file amendments on behalf of their constituents, those amendments should get due consideration."

No deal was struck, and because the Democrats had enough Republican support to push forward, they did so without the GOP amendment.

"They've blown up all their carefully coordinated show votes, delayed [nominations] and look like fools--all to avoid one simple vote on one amendment," a senior Republican aide said.

Though Democrats would not have accepted the job-creation measures the Republicans have proposed, it also means the bill won't go anywhere in the Republican-led House. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio has said that any legislation must both be paid for and include ways to promote job growth (although he opposes the bill for other reasons too, arguing it cannot be implemented.)

The bill that passed the Senate Thursday will extend benefits for five more months, and retroactively send checks to people whose benefits ran out when the program expired on Dec. 28. It is paid for by by using a combination of spending reductions that include "pension smoothing," - a method that allows companies to use historic interest rate averages to calculate pension contributions -- extending certain customs user fees, and allowing single-employer pension plans to prepay their flat rate premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Another offset includes ending unemployment insurance payments to any individual whose adjusted gross income in the preceding year was $1 million or more (0.03 percent of filers in 2010, according to the bill's authors).

In addition to Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I. and Dean Heller, R-Nev., the lead negotiators, the bill is being cosponsored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

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