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Policy: Labor

Congress gridlocked on unemployment pay while House easily passes $1 trillion spending bill

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Labor,PennAve,Economy,Budgets and Deficits

It's becoming increasingly likely that Congress will soon adjourn without passing an extension of federal unemployment benefits, leaving nearly 1.4 million of the nation's jobless in limbo as the two parties fight over how to pay for the legislation.

The gridlock comes even as Republicans and Democrats sailed through debate and passage of a massive federal spending bill that just months earlier was at the heart of a partisan dispute that grew so intense it resulted in a 16-day government shutdown.

While the Senate battled over jobless benefits, the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved the $1.012 trillion fiscal 2014 spending package, which will fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year and reverse $63 billion in domestic and defense cuts that were mandated to kick in this month under deficit-reducing legislation.

The Senate is expected to take up the measure later this week. It's expected to pass easily.

The 1,500-page spending bill passed the House 359 to 67, with almost all opposition coming from conservative Republicans opposed to bill's higher spending levels and its reversal of across-the-board budget cuts required under the so-called sequester.

“Once again, Congress is kicking the can down the road, refusing to make the tough choices that are necessary to put our fiscal house in order and prevent a future debt crisis," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a leading fiscal conservative with ties to the Tea Party.

But many lawmakers in both parties praised the measure, which capped defense spending at $520.5 billion and domestic spending at $491.7 billion. The bill includes $92 billion for overseeing military operations, including the war in Afghanistan.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., praised the bipartisan effort that went into crafting the spending bill, which averts a second government shutdown as both parties hoped. The measure also restores funding for programs favored by each side, including Head Start early education and military cost-of-living pension increases for disabled veterans.

"This bill is not perfect," Rogers said. "But it represents one of the great [parts of] our country; recognizing our common problems and finding a way out of it."

While the Senate isn't likely to fight over the spending bill when debate begins this week, it is no closer to striking a deal on whether to extend federal unemployment benefits that expired Dec. 28.

The Senate has taken up the jobless benefits extension several times but failed to reach a compromise. Republicans support a three-month, $6.4 billion extension of federal benefits that is offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. Democrats have countered with a year-long, $17 billion extension paid through other means, including cuts in Medicare.

Efforts to extend the jobless benefits collapsed Wednesday after Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on amendments to the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered Republicans a chance to vote on five amendments though he required that each meet a 60-vote threshold to pass, making it unlikely any would pass in the Democratically controlled chamber. Reid's proposal also would have allowed Democrats to end debate on the measure and advance it with a simple majority vote, which meant Republicans could have been cut out of the final vote altogether.

When Republicans offered amendments that would have delayed or repealed the Affordable Care Act, Reid blocked the proposals.

Republicans, who control only 45 votes, complained that the deal favored Democrats.

"He gets to block all Republican amendments while passing whatever his new substitute is at a simple majority," an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of Reid's proposal.

Pressure is mounting on Republicans to agree to a deal on the jobless benefits extension, however, as the ranks of the unemployed losing benefits grows.

Democrats are aggressively using the issue of unemployment benefits as a political weapon, painting the GOP as a callous party that simply opposes the idea of jobless pay for those struggling to find a job. Republicans, though, have approved about a dozen jobless pay extensions in the past five years.

"The minority hid behind one phony process argument after another as they voted to end a program that has successfully kept millions of Americans ... out of poverty," Reid said Wednesday. "But middle-class Americans see right through these flimsy Republican excuses."

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