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Senate sends unemployment insurance extension to a divided House

Updated at 8:40 p.m.

The Senate officially passed legislation to extend unemployment insurance benefits Monday afternoon, leaving their bill in the hands of a House that is not just divided between Democrats and Republicans, but among members of the GOP on how to proceed.

The bill was the product of a bipartisan compromise between five Democrats and five Republicans in the Senate, born out of months of squabbling between the two parties on amendments and ways to pay for the extension. The final vote was 59 to 38, with six Republicans joining Democrats to vote for final passage.

"Extending unemployment insurance for the thousands of Illinoisans seeking relief has been a long-standing priority of mine. I am pleased that this bipartisan, fully paid-for compromise passed the Senate this evening. I urge the House of Representatives to swiftly pass this legislation," Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., one of the bill's cosponsors, said in a statement.

The Senate Republican leadership made a last-ditch effort last week to add a series of measures to the bill in a catch-all amendment they said would boost job growth by approving the Keystone XL pipeline, reducing taxes on small businesses, and eliminating the 30-hour workweek rule in Obamacare, among other things. It also would have forced some Democrats to take a tough vote, and since there was enough support for the bill to overcome a filibuster, the amendment did not happen.

Still, the House GOP could take up the cause by attaching those same measures to the bill and sending it back to the Senate. 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).

"As the Speaker said months ago, we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs - but, last week, Senate Democratic Leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all. The American people are still asking, 'where are the jobs?' and House Republicans are focused on our jobs agenda for families and small businesses," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

Within Boehner's caucus, there is a range of views on the issue from those who believe the economy has improved enough that the federal government's emergency benefits are unnecessary, to those who see their constituents back home suffering enough that they have pushed Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to put the Senate bill or a similar measure up for a vote.

"As you know, emergency unemployment benefits expired in December, immediately leaving approximately 1.3 million Americans without benefits. Since then, many more people have lost benefits each week, bringing the number of long-term unemployed Americans without government assistance to greater than two million," the letter said. "Today, a bi-partisan deal was passed in the U.S. Senate that would retroactively restore unemployment benefits and extend these benefits for 5 months. As many Americans continue to struggle without benefits, we respectfully request that the House immediately consider this bill or a similar measure."

Republicans who have signed onto the letter include Reps. Jon Runyan, Christopher Smith and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey; Reps. Peter King, Chris Gibson, and Michael Grimm of New York; and Nevada Rep. Joe Heck.

Not long after Senate vote concluded, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., introduced a companion bill in the House identical to the Senate legislation. He said it was "long past time" for the House to take action.

Senate Democrats hope the bill's existence and bipartisan passage in the Senate will help push it through the House, though that is a strategy that has failed before (see: the Senate immigration bill, which the House leaders have vowed will not come to the floor).

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the number three Senate Democrat, even urged the House to abandon any divisive changes that will sink any chance of the bill's passage.

"We have bent over backwards to pass a strong bipartisan unemployment insurance bill that incorporates Republican ideas. If our bill was put up for a vote in the House, there is no question it would pass," Schumer said in a statement. "The House needs to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans right now, without attaching extraneous issues that are merely an attempt to score political points."

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 was 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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