Washington, DC (CBS) - Although attempts by Democrats to extend emergency unemployment benefits in the Senate have failed multiple times, the issue stands to reemerge yet again when Congress returns next week thanks to a group of Republicans who are looking for new ways to bring the two parties together on the issue.
Republican Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana, Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine and Dean Heller of Nevada - an original cosponsor of the measure - met last week to figure out a strategy going forward, Politico reported. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which expired at the end of last year, has largely fallen victim to a feud in the Senate between the two parties, as Republicans are still angry at Democrats for voting to limit their ability to use filibusters. In the fight to renew the lapsed benefits, Republicans first sought a way to pay for an extension, and then wanted the Senate to vote on amendments to reform the program.
Democrats have offered ways to pay for the bill, an even sweeteners like deficit reduction, but Republicans have largely stood firm in saying no. On the most recent failed vote, just four Republicans - Heller, Collins, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - joined with the Democrats to move ahead with a vote on the latest offer.
The issue can be a tough one for Republicans in states hit hard by the recession. Nationally, extending unemployment benefits is a popular policy that has 58 percent support among voters (37 percent oppose), according to a January Quinnipiac poll. Much of that number is inflated by high Democratic support (83 percent), and dragged down by Republican voters, who oppose extending the benefits by 54 to 42 percent.
The plan that Heller, Collins, Portman and Coats are working on would retroactively extend benefits by about three months, and pay for the $6 billion-plus price tag by ensuring that people are not collecting both unemployment and disability benefits. But the GOP will also want amendments to reform the unemployment program, such as banning people from receiving benefits once they have received at least a “suitable” offer of work, according to Politico. That is something that Reid has shown unwilling to allow up until now.
“We’re still working on the same thing, which is solving the problem,” Portman told Politico. “I continue to believe that we can solve this if Democrats want to.”
Finding an agreement on the issue could help break some of the tension between the two parties in the upper chamber where lawmakers are usually able to make deals. But even if they move past the unemployment insurance issue, Democrats still want to move onto bills like a minimum wage increase, which will likely face a fresh round of Republican opposition.
If no agreement is reached, Democrats will use this as an example to try to hammer Republicans as part of their midterm campaign message of income inequality.
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