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Policy: Entitlements

Rob Portman blames Harry Reid for impasse on unemployment benefits

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Sen. Rob Portman is blaming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the holdup in extending unemployment benefits for millions of longterm jobless Americans.

The Ohio Republican said a reasonable deal remains on the table that would attract the GOP votes needed to pass legislation in the Senate. But Portman said Reid would rather try to damage the Republicans politically by painting them as against unemployment insurance than compromising and moving a bill that extends jobless benefits to Americans in need.

Officially, Sen. Jack Reed is the lead Democrat in the negotiations, and Portman said a bill would have passed weeks ago if the Rhode Islander were actually running the talks. But Portman said Reid is really in charge and continues to block an agreement. Based on the political attacks Portman has endured back home, he presumes this is so Democrats can continue to push an issue that is an integral part of their election-year message.

“They want the issue more than they want the result, so it’s hurting those who are long-term unemployed by playing politics with it,” Portman told the Washington Examiner during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “We’re close. I do think we can get there if there’s a willingness to sit down and work this out.”

Portman serves as vice chairman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate Republicans' campaign arm.

Democrats generally have been critical of the Republicans' broad opposition to the extension — the GOP has supported others. But on Tuesday, Reid said he had “some good conversations” with Republican senators on an extending unemployment insurance. The Nevada Democrat sounded optimistic and conciliatory about the prospects for a deal, although Republicans such as Portman remain circumspect.

“I believe there’s a number of Republican senators who want to get something done,” Reid told reporters during his weekly news conference. “The vast majority of them want it to go away, but there are some Republican senators of good will who are trying to work to move forward on this.”

Most House and Senate Republicans oppose the benefits extension, arguing that it hampers economic growth and hurts the people it is designed to help. But about a half-dozen, led by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., favor the legislation. The partisan disagreement centers on whether to offset the cost of extending the benefits for the long-term jobless with budget cuts or other measures.

Heller supports extending the benefits without an offset but has tried to negotiate a deal that includes a way to pay for it to get other Republicans on board. Democrats had opposed paying for the benefits extension but are now willing to support a bill with an offset. The two parties are now sparring over how to pay for it, in addition to a few other items. For instance, Republicans support a three-month extension; Reid wants six months.

For Portman, paying for the extension within a budget window that runs through 2024, as well as including reforms to existing job training programs, are the keys to winning his vote. Portman is now willing to support an extension that runs longer than three months, but is holding firm that it must be offset with budget cuts or savings that occur within a 10-year budget window.

“I’m continuing to try to find a way to get to ‘yes,’ ” Portman said.

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