Senate delays test vote on jobless benefits extension

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — With more than a dozen lawmakers absent due to travel delays caused by bad weather, the U.S. Senate postponed until Tuesday a key procedural vote on a politically charged proposal to extend long-term unemployment insurance affecting some 1.3 million Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid received unanimous approval for a postponement from both parties just before the chamber was due to hold the test vote on the first partisan showdown of the New Year on Monday evening.

A razor-close margin was expected and the projected outcome of the vote to move ahead with debate was too close to call, senior aides from both parties said.

The Senate will now take up the measure on Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET.

Extending benefits is a top political priority for congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama, who is trying to make income equality a centerpiece of his second term.

Many Republicans argue a $6.4 billion extension would hurt the economy and act as a disincentive to job creation. Others members of the GOP have signaled they might back one if the cost is offset elsewhere in the budget.

Midterms in play

Big moments on Capitol Hill from here on out should be viewed through the lens of next November’s midterm elections, especially in the Senate where Republicans are aiming to retake control of the chamber.

All 55 members of the Democratic caucus are expected to support the unemployment extension measure, but it was unclear if enough Republicans would join them to get the 60 votes required for the procedural motion to pass.

Democratic aides doubted there would be at least five Republicans who would vote with them, though they acknowledged Republicans could vote to advance the bill even if down the line they decided to block it.

However, Republican aides said they thought there was a real possibility there would be enough GOP votes to take up the bill.

While the aides couldn’t say exactly which Senators might vote “yes,” they thought there could be moderate Republicans or Senators from high unemployment states to give it the necessary votes.

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, a cosponsor of the bill, is the only Republican publicly supporting it.

Democrats see themselves in a win-win position on the test vote. They could build momentum for the bill if Republicans back it. They get a political weapon if Republicans don’t.

Seventeen Senators absent

In remarks just before the vote was to have been held, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, noted that 17 members were not in the chamber and urged that the proceedings be delayed “so we can have a real debate” and decide how to pay for it.

Republicans and Democrats alike were delayed by rough winter weather that plunged the Midwest and much of the South into a deep freeze, triggering widespread travel delays.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, for one, was held up when he tweeted that his commuter flight to Washington returned to South Carolina shortly after takeoff due to a possible engine problem and made a safe emergency landing.

Benefits expired

Benefits for the long-term unemployed expired last month after Congress opted not to continue a 2008 recession-era law providing nearly a year of payments, footed by U.S. taxpayers, that kicked in when state jobless benefits ran out.

Democrats insist the program is critical to help Americans who are struggling and maintain the economic recovery.

Republicans argue that the program — which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost about $26 billion to continue for another year — is costly and is a disincentive to looking for work.

The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 7 percent in November, the most recent Labor Department statistics show. That means more than 10 million people were out of work, a third of them without a job for at least 27 weeks.

Republicans also upped the ante over the weekend. Key members, including potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, insisted that an extension must include cuts elsewhere to offset the cost.

“I’m opposed to having it without paying for it,” Paul said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think it’s wrong to borrow money from China or simply print up money for it.”

House Speaker John Boehner will insist on such offsets before agreeing to an extension, a spokesman for the Republican leader told CNN.

Obama supports passage

During his weekly address over the weekend, President Barack Obama also underscored that failing to pass an extension could result in a drag on the economy.

“It actually slows down the economy for all of us. If folks can’t pay their bills or buy the basics, like food and clothes, local businesses take a hit and hire fewer workers,” he said.

Reid is optimistic about reaching the 60 votes on the procedural motion, but conservative interests are applying heavy pressure and keeping score.

The Club for Growth urged all Senators to vote “no” on the proposal and cited the lack of spending offsets.

“Congress should end the federal unemployment insurance program and return the authority back to the states, which already have programs in place,” the group said in a statement.

“Absent this, Congress should pay for this extension by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget. After six years, an extension can no longer be called an ’emergency’ with any credibility. There is plenty of waste in the federal budget from which to find an offset,” it said.