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Senate GOP blocks jobless aid extension

Democrats are three votes short of cutting off debate on a bill that would reinstate long-term unemployment benefits and provide help to businesses and cash-strapped states, including California.

June 25, 2010|By Janet Hook and Noam N. Levey, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting on Washington —

Senate Republicans on Thursday once again blocked legislation to reinstate long-term unemployment benefits for people who have exhausted their aid, prolonging a stalemate that has left more than a million people without federal help.

With the Senate apparently paralyzed by partisan gridlock, the fate of the aid, as well as tax breaks for businesses and $16 billion in aid for cash-strapped states, remains unclear. California and dozens of other states are hoping for federal aid to help balance their budgets.

Republican lawmakers — joined by Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska — maintained a unified front to sustain a filibuster of the $110-billion bill. The vote was 57 to 41; the majority was three short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and bring the bill to a final vote.

Democrats said they would give no further ground and put the onus on Republicans to make concessions.

"If there were ever evidence that this is the party of no, this is it," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who added that several governors would be arriving in Washington next week to make the case for the bill to help states, businesses and those who have been out of work more than six months.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) disputed Reid's characterization. "The only thing Republicans have opposed in this debate are job-killing taxes and adding to the national debt," he said.

The unemployment extension would add about $30 billion to the national debt. Democrats say all the provisions in the bill are offset by spending cuts and tax increases except the jobless benefits, which Congress traditionally has approved as an emergency without looking for a way to pay for them. Benefits for the long-term unemployed lapsed at the end of May because of the congressional stalemate.

In a statement, the White House vowed to keep pushing for the bill. "The president has been clear: Americans should not fall victim to Republican obstruction at a time of great economic challenge for our nation's families," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

It was the third time in two weeks that Democrats failed to circumvent unified GOP opposition, despite making a series of changes to accommodate complaints about deficit spending.

The latest bill was a pared-back version of the $140-billion measure approved by the House. Last week, Democrats agreed to slash unemployment benefits by $25 billion to cut costs. In the latest version, Democrats scaled back funding for Medicaid aid to states.

The Labor Department estimates that more than 1.2 million long-term unemployed will have lost their benefits by the end of this week.

Democrats did succeed in moving one spending bill Thursday, with the House of Representatives voting unanimously to delay for five months a 21% cut in what Medicare pays doctors. That ends, for now, a tortured congressional debate over how to protect seniors' access to medical care without driving the federal government deeper into debt.

Under the legislation, Medicare, which covers more than 45 million mostly elderly Americans, will boost its physician payment rate by 2.2%.

That bill, whose approximately $6.5-billion price tag is offset by changes in hospital reimbursements and in the way businesses pay into their pension funds, was approved unanimously in the Senate last week and is expected to be quickly signed by the president.

For now, that will diffuse a brewing crisis that had threatened to devastate doctors and drive many to stop taking Medicare patients just as the new healthcare law is supposed to be expanding access to healthcare.

But the temporary payment increase does not solve the underlying imbalance in the way Medicare pays doctors, which has intensified over the last decade as successive Congresses controlled by Republicans and Democrats have failed to impose more modest cuts.

After Nov. 30, Medicare will impose another deep cut in payments to doctors unless Congress comes up with yet another measure to avert it.

Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for the persistent problem.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) called the bill "an embarrassment." "This should have been fixed permanently," he said on the House floor.

Neither party has been able to agree on a permanent solution without adding to the budget deficit, forcing a series of temporary fixes.

janet.hook@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

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