WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) abruptly postponed Monday evening’s planned vote on extending unemployment benefits after a Republican complained that proceeding would be unfair because weather-related airline delays had prevented as many as 17 senators from returning to Washington in time for the roll call.
Though Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) challenged Reid’s plan to hold the vote, Democratic leaders thought Republicans were bluffing. Many of the absent senators were Republicans from the South and Midwest. Holding the vote as scheduled would have allowed them to avoid a roll call on the unemployment extension, which the vast majority of congressional Republicans oppose but which party strategists concede is popular with many voters.
Democrats need at least five Republicans to join them to provide the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster of the bill. So far only a handful, including Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Susan Collins of Maine, both states with high unemployment levels, have publicly stepped forward.
The decision to postpone the vote until Tuesday could increase pressure on those Republican senators who have shown little interest in the legislation. The proposal the Senate is debating would extend for an additional three months aid for about 1.3 million out-of-work Americans whose long-term benefits expired Dec. 28.
“If this was anything other than a political exercise, then the majority leader would have rescheduled this vote,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor as debate came to a close. “This ought to be postponed.”
Reid then surprised many in the chamber by accepting Cornyn’s proposal and asking for agreement to hold the vote Tuesday morning.
President Obama plans to speak about the issue Tuesday, shortly after the Senate is scheduled to vote.
Extending unemployment aid during periods of high jobless levels has historically been a routine vote, but has become increasingly tangled in partisan politics.
Democrats are using the issue to kick off their campaign to retain control of the Senate in the fall’s midterm election. They hope a focus on pocketbook concerns will help their prospects. Republican senators, who would prefer to keep the 2014 campaign focused on Obamacare, have argued against the unemployment aid.
Republican opponents of the unemployment bill say the $6-billion cost of the three-month extension should be paid for with budget cuts elsewhere. Some Republicans argue that unemployment insurance enables those without jobs to postpone returning to work.
Conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, have urged senators to oppose the extension and have warned that votes related to the measure would be counted in their annual scorecards. Heritage Action explained in a note to senators that unemployment benefits were not a “free lunch.”
Few senators voiced opposition during debate Monday, a possible sign of the political difficulty of voting against benefits for the jobless. In many states, unemployment remains above the national rate, which was 7% in November, according to the latest information from the Labor Department. Although unemployment overall has dropped, the rate for those who remain unemployed for an extended period has been stubbornly high.
Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.