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Coburn, McConnell Tie Up Unemployment Benefits; Negotiations Continue

Updated: 4:43 p.m.

Senate Democrats and Republicans launched a last-minute round of negotiations over a new short-term unemployment insurance bill after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) used procedural tactics to block Democrats’ one-month extension Thursday afternoon.

By filing cloture on the motion to proceed on the GOP’s fully paid-for version of the extension, McConnell essentially leapfrogged a version that is not fully offset, which is favored by Democrats.

Although Democrats were able to defeat that motion with a 59-40 vote to table the GOP bill, attitudes on the two sides were clearly hardening Thursday afternoon.

A senior GOP leadership aide charged that Democrats are out of control in their spending and that Republicans are increasingly angry about the fiscal direction Reid and others are leading the country in.

“We have a serious problem, and they don’t care that we’re in full deficit spending mode,” the aide said, warning that Republicans will continue to block unfunded measures — including unemployment insurance — until Democrats agree to pay for them.

“We are going to fight deficits, debt [and] spending from now until we turn it around. They can do it the easy way or they can do it this way,” the aide warned.

Democrats, however, charged that Republicans are uninterested in helping the poor and argued that given the economic situation using un-offset, emergency spending is appropriate.

“Is there any compassion at all left with Republicans for people whose checks are going to run out at Easter time,” Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said prior to the vote.

Reid agreed, saying in a press release that, “I regret that my Republican colleagues are once again standing in the way of our efforts to give out-of-work Americans the unemployment and health benefits they need.”

Reid also sought to chalk up the GOP’s opposition to deficit spending as simply a knee-jerk reaction to their defeat on health care reform earlier in the day.

“I understand that Republicans are upset they didn’t get their way on health care,” Reid said. “I know they’re disappointed that Democrats have listened to the American people and that we succeeded in finally delivering the change our citizens have demanded and deserved for decades. But Republicans should not take out their anger on the least fortunate, which is exactly what they are doing. They should not kick the unemployed while they’re down.”

Although the fight threatened to ignite another filibuster of unemployment benefits similar to one undertaken by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) earlier this year, aides on both sides of the aisle cautioned that talks were ongoing and that a deal could still be worked out.

The impasse touched off a round of negotiations between McConnell, Coburn, Reid and other Democrats.

According to a Democratic aide familiar with the situation, senior aides were scrambling to draft a host of potential compromises ranging from a much shorter extension to finding a mechanism to pay for the legislation that Democrats support.

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