By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON (AP) _ One day after clearing a key Senate hurdle, legislation to renew long-term jobless benefits veered toward gridlock Wednesday as Democrats objected to Republican demands to offset the cost so deficits don’t rise.
“Why wouldn’t we pay for it if we could?” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of several members of his party backing options to cover the estimated $6.4 billion price tag of the three-month bill.
The proposals ranged from delaying a requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance under the new health care law to preventing immigrants in the country illegally from claiming a certain type of tax break for their children. A third would prevent individuals who qualify for Social Security disability payments from also receiving unemployment benefits.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., labeled the first two options as “a little scary,” saying one would “take a whack out of Obamacare” and the other would “go after children, children.”
Democrats said they opposed paying for the legislation, given that the program expired on Dec. 28 and an estimated 1.3 million long-term unemployed suddenly lost benefits averaging $256 a week. They said similar extensions have been passed repeatedly in the past without offsetting spending cuts to prevent deficits from rising, including five times when President George W. Bush was in office.
The dispute played out as Republicans sought to trigger a more fundamental debate about the Senate’s role in government and its management under Reid.
In lengthy remarks, the GOP leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said that in recent years the Senate has become a `hollow shell” of the institution envisioned in the Constitution. He added that major legislation “is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the majority leader’s conference room and then dropped on the floor with little or no opportunity for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight.”
McConnell said that in the past several months, Reid has only allowed Republicans to have roll call votes on four amendments, a number so low he called it “stunning.” At 45 minutes, the speech was unusually long, and his rank and file listened from their seats while he spoke, in a sign of support for his message.
Democrats were absent, except for Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who presided at the time.
McConnell’s remarks were direct, yet generally free of the sort of intensely heated rhetoric that is prevalent in Congress. While he said Republicans bear some of the responsibility for the state of affairs, he placed ultimate blame on the Democrats.
“A common refrain from Democrats is that Republicans have been too quick to block bills from even coming to the floor. What they fail to mention is that more often than not we’ve done this either because we’d been shut out of the drafting process or there wouldn’t be any amendments.”
That was the likely situation on the unemployment legislation, according to Democratic aides who said Reid was poised to prevent Republicans from seeking changes.
As drafted, the legislation would restore benefits averaging $256 weekly to the estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless Americans who were cut off on Dec. 28. Duration of federal coverage generally ranges from 14 weeks to 47 weeks, depending on the level of unemployment within individual states. The three-month cost to the Treasury is estimated at $6.4 billion.
Without action by Congress, hundreds of thousands more will feel the impact in the months ahead as their state-funded benefits expire, generally after 26 weeks.
Six Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday in voting to advance the measure over a procedural hurdle, but generally made it clear they were doing so on the expectation that they would be given the chance to seek changes.
A seventh, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, told reporters he could think of only one reason Reid wouldn’t permit votes, “and that is if he wants a problem.” That was a reference to the widely held view among GOP lawmakers and aides that Democrats wanted to pin political blame on their party for refusing to renew the program.
Some Democrats tacitly agreed that was the case, predicting that sooner or later, Republicans would seek fewer concessions before allowing the measure to pass.
Any legislation that clears the Senate would also have to pass in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said it must be paid for.
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