Unemployment Benefits in Jeopardy - Again

Everything new is old again...We're back where we were a month ago, only with different players. The Senate needs to pass a one month extension of unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits, again, because House Democrats have said they want to make changes to a longer term extension bill. And Republicans have, again, insisted that they won't do it without finding a way to pay for it, and one of their members is now engaged in a filibuster.

Democrats recently passed "Pay as You Go" rules (PAYGO) that mandate that any new spending be offset with spending cuts or tax increases, but a provision in that bill provides for exceptions for “emergencies.” Democrats say the dire unemployment situation in the country is just such an emergency. Republicans note that the nation’s rising debt is, itself, an emergency, and items like this should be paid for with some kind of offset.

All of this means, unless a deal can be reached behind the scenes, those who qualify for unemployment insurance will be left holding the bag (there are a number of states that cut checks in advance, so many checks are in the mail already). Doctors who service Medicare patients will also not be getting their federal reimbursement until Congress acts.

And if all of this sounds familiar, it should. This is a re-run of last month's fight when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-KY, launched a one-man filibuster, insisting that a previous short term extension, like this one, be paid for. Bunning wanted unallocated stimulus funds used in that instance.

Enter Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, who has, this time, taken up the Bunning filibuster mantel. Coburn is refusing to allow a short term extension of these benefits that is not paid for.

"We've had these multiple month-long extensions of which none have been paid for at about $9 billion to $10 billion a month, and we find ourselves because we want to go home...or we want to campaign or we want to fundraise, that we make it easy and pass it on down to the next generation. And I find myself that I can't agree to that anymore ever again," Coburn promised in a Senate floor speech, as members are poised to start a two-week recess for Easter and Passover.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, has also joined the fight. The top Republican on the Finance Committee has introduced a short term extension bill that is fully paid for, partly by eliminating a special deal in the health care reform bill just passed that gives a higher Medicare reimbursement rate to physicians and hospitals in five rural western states.

Democrats cried foul, saying the previous Administration is more to blame for rising deficits and that the unemployment picture is an emergency that needs immediate attention.

"This deficit is a real problem, but a lot of it was made by (the George W. Bush) administration," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, detailing big ticket items passed under Bush's watch that were not paid for, like the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, tax cuts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-MT, said simply, "This is a bill that requires urgent attention. It is not paid for."

Sen. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, tried to force a vote on the Grassley measure, but Democrats tabled, or killed that action on a party line vote, leaving the chamber at a stalemate, for now.

Negotiations are happening behind the scenes among Republican and Democratic leadership, but it is unclear if this can be resolved