Jobless Benefits 'Extender' Bill May Be on Life Support Amid Deficit Concerns

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scolded colleagues Monday for twice voting to block the advancement of the so-called "extender" bill of which he is a prime architect -- even as his top lieutenant admitted to reporters that the measure is likely doomed.

"When the Senate refuses to pass good bills, people in our state pay the price," Reid said on the Senate floor. Invoking the image of unemployed Nevadans, Reid added: "Every minute we waste gets worse for them. ... It would serve the Senate well to remember the consequence of decisions that are driven by politics purely."

The bill is called an "extender" because it revives some expired tax cuts for small businesses -- while raising taxes on venture capital firms -- and provides extended payments to unemployed people whose benefits are running out.

Although the House has approved its own version of the bill, and the Senate approved a similar measure back in March, Senate lawmakers -- reflecting increased anxiety on the part of voters about the mushrooming size of the national debt -- are now balking at approving the extender bill.

Twice last week, the measure failed to advance on key procedural votes, with Senate Democrats in both instances joining the Republicans, who were unified in their opposition. The first version that failed last week would have added $78.7 billion to the federal deficit; the second version would have added about $60 billion.

Concern over the federal debt has risen since it hit the $13 trillion mark. A recent Gallup poll showed close to 80 percent of Americans rate the debt as "very serious" or "extremely serious" issue -- a ranking that placed the debt at the top of the issues list, tied with terrorism.

Last week, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters the caucus is beginning to think about how to bring an end to the unemployment benefits program, out of concern that the federal government may be creating a "vast new entitlement program."

The extender bill would not extend the total lifespan of jobless benefits, just fund extensions to recipients of benefits who have not exceeded 99 weeks' worth of aid.

Reid's quarrel is not limited to Republicans. Yet Reid's No. 2 man in the chamber, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., placed blame for the extender's blockage squarely on the GOP. "At this point, we have no Republican support for extending unemployment compensation. It means that some 80,000 unemployed people in Illinois will be losing their unemployment benefits," Durbin told reporters in Chicago.

Where Reid's floor remarks pointedly omitted any indication of how the Senate Democrats intend to proceed from here, Durbin said flatly of the extender's prospects: "It doesn't look good."

Yet Durbin still sought to make the case for continued deficit spending in a period of tepid economic recovery. "People say 'With this deficit, how can you add to it?' The best way to get out of our deficit is to put people back to work. ... In the medium term -- a matter of a year, two, three years -- we can honestly say we can now move toward long-term structural deficit reduction. And I think that that's an honest answer. It may not be the most popular answer in some quarters."

Durbin's answer was assuredly not popular with the Senate's top Republican, either. "Our good friends on the other side still don't seem to get it," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, in dueling remarks with Reid.

"They're twisting and turning not to cut the debt, but to borrow with as much as they can with the minimum votes to pass this bill. ... We've never seen anything like this. And it threatens not only the livelihoods of our children, it threatens our national security and the very safety net Democrats claim they want to protect."

An aide to Reid told Fox News he is still whittling down the extender's cost, and may even strip it of a provision that would steer $24 billion in federal funding to Medicaid, the medical care program for the poor that is administered jointly by the federal government and the states.

Throughout the extender's tortured history, Reid has also been trying to win the one or two Republican votes he would need in order to surmount a GOP filibuster. These efforts have focused especially on the two members from Maine, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both "swing" voters who can sometimes be persuaded to join the Democratic majority on critical votes.

To increase public pressure on the lawmakers from the Pine Tree state, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) -- one of the nation's largest public-sector labor unions, representing 1.6 million members -- began running a new TV ad in Maine this week.

The ad -- which is set to run on broadcast and cable channels in the area, with a reported purchase of $75,000 in air time -- seeks to address the lawmakers' deficit concerns. "It's pretty simple: the more jobs we create now, the less federal debt they'll have to carry later," AFSCME president Gerald McEntee can be heard saying. "Tell Senators Snowe and Collins to pass the jobs bill now. Not just for us, but for our children."

Fox News was reaching out to the lawmakers' offices for a response to the ad.