A day after the Senate advanced a bill that would extend federal jobless benefits, the measure hit unyielding Republican resistance Wednesday with both the House and Senate GOP demanding that the extension's $6.4 billion price tag be offset by budget cuts.
The fight puts passage of the extension in jeopardy in the Senate, where majority Democrats need Republican help in advancing the bill to a final vote, and the House, where Republicans leaders have no plans to even consider the Senate measure.
“If the majority leader wants this bill to pass the Senate, then he's likely going to have to find a way to pay for it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday.
Democrats, who are running in this year's elections under the banner of "income inequality," were quick to take political aim at Republicans over their refusal to support the extension.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., likened the expiration of longterm jobless benefits in December to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, two emergencies to which the federal government responded with aid that was not offset elsewhere in the budget.
"When Katrina hit in Louisiana, and we found people desperate to escape the waters and their flooded homes, Republicans and Democrats didn't ask, 'Can those folks pay for the emergency helicopters to come pick them up?'" Becerra said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Wednesday met privately with his members for the first time this year and reiterated his opposition to the proposed three-month extension of benefits unless the extension's cost is offset by budget cuts and the bill is amended to include Republican provisions aimed at boosting job creation.
Boehner told reporters after the meeting that his position has not changed since December, when White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough phoned him about passing an extension before Congress adjourned for the year, and before federal benefits expired Dec. 28.
"I made clear that we would consider extending emergency unemployment insurance if it were paid for, and if there were provisions we could agree to that would get the economy moving again and put the American people back to work," Boehner said.
But Democrats insist they won't support additional cuts to federal programs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took to the Senate floor early Wednesday to argue against additional cuts, noting that Congress extended jobless benefits five times under then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, without such offsets.
"We never offset the cost," Reid said. "And we should not offset it now, when there is still only one job available for every three people seeking work.”
Reid and House Democratic leaders are offering to negotiate with Republicans over how to pay for extending federal jobless benefits beyond the three months outlined in the bill, they said Wednesday.
"Certainly the first three months, this definitely should not be paid for," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. "In terms of the long run we can sit down and discuss how we handle it."
Federal unemployment benefits have been extended 11 times over the past five years and were intended to provide assistance to people who exhausted state jobless aid, which on average lasts 26 weeks.
For the typical worker, federal aid amounted to about $300 per week.
Democrats say the federal aid boosts the economy and saves jobs by keeping the long-term unemployed financially stable. But Republicans counter that the multibillion dollar cost of an extension would only add to the $17 trillion national debt and further weaken the economy.