The Wall Street Journal
By: Janet Hook & Martin Vaughan
November 19, 2010
WASHINGTON--House Republicans Thursday torpedoed a bill to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed, pressing their demand that the $12 billion cost of continuing the program be offset rather than adding to the deficit.
In a defeat for Democrats trying to keep the program from expiring Nov. 30, the House rejected a bill to continue the program for three more months.
Lawmakers in both parties expect a compromise eventually to be reached--but not until December, after the current program expires. Without an extension, 800,000 unemployed workers will lose their benefits by Nov. 30 and two million by the end of December. A similar lapse in benefits occurred last summer as Congress struggled to break another impasse.
The unemployment aid is just one of many issues before the lame duck Congress that are confounding President Barack Obama and congressional leaders. Others include the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts that are due to expire Dec. 31 and a funding mechanism to keep the government running after a stop-gap appropriations bill expires Dec. 3.
He said the Senate would hold up-or-down votes on two leading alternatives: the Democrats' proposal to extend tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 a year, and Republicans' plan to make tax cuts permanent for all taxpayers, including wealthier ones. Neither is seen having the votes to pass.
The House is also moving toward a vote in early December on extending the tax cuts only for the middle class, according to House Democratic aides.
On Thursday, the Senate approved a measure to avoid cuts in Medicare payments to physicians, postponing the cuts until the end of the year. The House is expected to approve the measure Nov. 29, when it returns after a week-long Thanksgiving recess. The cuts to doctor payments are scheduled to go into effect Nov. 30. A one-month delay would give lawmakers more time to craft a long-term extension.
Congress has to replace or extend the stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, because Congress failed to enact any of the government's 12 regular appropriations bills before the fiscal year began Oct. 1.
Democrats and some Republicans on the appropriations committees have been preparing to wrap the 12 bills into a $1.108 trillion omnibus bill to fund government operations for the rest of the fiscal year.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had said he could support a bill at that funding level. But in remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Mr. McConnell said he would not support such a bill, saying voters had spoken against such measures in the midterm elections two weeks ago.
"Americans don't want Congress passing massive, trillion-dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors,'' he said. Mr. McConnell's decision means that Congress will have to craft another short-term spending measure to extend government funding.
Agreement also eluded the two parties on a plan for extended unemployment benefits. The program provides aid for up to 99 weeks to many workers who are laid off, by adding to the maximum of 26 weeks of benefits offered through most state programs.
Members of both parties say they want to extend the benefits, and a majority backed the legislation in the 258-154 vote Thursday, which included 143 Republicans voting against it and 21 in favor. The bill failed after Democratic leaders had brought it to the floor under fast-track procedures that require a two-thirds majority for passage.
Democrats could still bring the bill to the House floor under regular and more time-consuming debate rules that would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority. But it still would face obstacles in the Senate, where Republicans are poised to block the bill if it does not include offsetting spending cuts.
Democrats were not surprised by the outcome but saw political advantage in staging the vote in order to portray Republicans as responsible for the impending benefit lapse.
"The message to four million Americans will be the Republican Party doesn't care whether you have a Christmas or a way to fund your mortgage or a way to put food on the table for the next three months," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D., Wash.).
Republicans said they didn't oppose extending the benefits, but that they wanted to heed the midterm-election outcry against deficit spending.
"What we heard earlier this month is that people want us to provide help to those in need but not add to the mountain of debt," said Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R., La.).
Write to Martin Vaughan at firstname.lastname@example.org