WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans and Democrats both pledged Wednesday to renew efforts at resurrecting jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, but immediate prospects for compromise appeared dim one day after a Senate deadlock.
Several officials in both parties said a key sticking point on the politically-charged issue centered on a Republican demand to include a provision that would repeal changes in benefits for military retirees that cleared Congress late last year.
"Our side is going to protect the military veterans as hard as we can," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who earlier had joined with Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.., in proposing a no-strings-attached three-month renewal of benefits for the long-term unemployed. The two men represent states with jobless rates of 9 percent, the nation's highest.
Other obstacles to a compromise centered on the duration any renewal of jobless benefits and steps to offset the cost so deficits don't rise.
As they did on Tuesday, leaders in the two political parties accused each other of causing the stalemate on a pocketbook issue for victims of the worst recession since the Great Depression of more than 70 years ago.
The proposed legislation concerns extended aid for laid-off workers who have exhausted their state-provided benefits, which generally last 26 weeks. Under a program that expired late last year, federal payments were available for up to an additional 47 weeks, depending on the level of statewide unemployment.
About 1.3 million jobless workers receiving about $256 weekly were cut off when the program expired, a number that officials say is growing weekly as more and more individuals reach the end of their state benefits.
With compromise efforts at a standstill, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader accused Democrats of wanting to see the legislation fail as part of an election-year move for political gain.
"It's no secret that Democrats plan to spend the year exploiting folks who are still struggling in this economy for political gain. They've been telling reporters that for weeks," he said. But that doesn't make it less disturbing. It's still wrong."
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said the stalemate was the fault of GOP leaders. The votes on Tuesday amounted to "politics as usual for Republicans, but it was a tragedy for millions of Americans who were relying on Congress to help them through hard times," he said.
Despite the rhetoric, neither side was willing to give the appearance they had abandoned all efforts.
"This fight is not over," Reid vowed, and Republicans took steps to seek a vote on a proposal that more than a half-dozen of their rank and file members made to Democrats earlier in the week.
The most recent Democratic proposal would renew a scaled-back program of jobless benefits until November at a cost of more than $12 billion over a decade. The price tag would be paid in 2024 by deepening some of the across-the-board cuts in existence on benefit programs, including a reduction in fees paid to Medicare providers.
Republicans countered with a three-month renewal of jobless benefits and a permanent repeal of the provision to hold down annual inflation-linked increases in benefits for military retirees under age 62. The cost, estimated at slightly over $12.5 billion, would be paid for gradually over a decade by deepening cuts along the lines Democrats proposed, but excluding Medicare.
The change in military retirement benefits doesn't take effect until 2015. But it infuriated veterans, who are demanding lawmakers reverse themselves immediately.
So far, Reid has resisted, pointing out in remarks on the Senate floor that the idea originated with Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee.
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