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Democrats Struggle to Finish Up Extenders

Internal Disputes Slow Action on Benefits Bill

Congressional Republicans appeared to hand Democrats a political gift two months ago by casting themselves as the bad guys who wouldn’t provide continued unemployment benefits in a down economy.

But this week, Democratic infighting could put the blame for inaction squarely on the majority’s back.

Unless Democratic leaders can get their act together quickly, unemployment benefits will expire while Congress is on its weeklong Memorial Day recess.

On Tuesday, House and Senate Democratic leaders were still struggling to find the votes to pass a nearly $200 billion tax extenders bill that happens to include the latest extension of unemployment benefits. That extension would last until the end of the year.

“Trying to get it all worked out is easier said than done, I think, but we’re trying,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said, “I don’t know that it’s going to get resolved this week.”

At press time, House Democrats had still not figured out a way to bring the bill to the floor, with defections piling up from lawmakers worried about the bill’s cost, the $134 billion increase in the deficit over the coming decade or the provisions increasing taxes on carried interest that hedge fund managers receive for managing investments.

But House Democrats tried to minimize their internal disputes and pointed the finger at indecision on the Senate side.

One House Democratic aide called it “unreal” that Senate leadership and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) still haven’t figured out what they need in the package to get to 60 votes.

“That was what was supposed to happen over the last month,” the aide said.

House Democrats also would like to have a better idea of what the Senate will accept — something that seems unknowable because numerous Senators said they would need to see what the House produces first.

House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said House Democrats were still hopeful of getting the bill to the floor this week.

Senate Democratic aides said the chamber was mostly just waiting for the House to decide what to do and pass the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to jettison debate on a separate supplemental war spending bill in order to take up the tax bill and, by extension, unemployment benefits, another senior Senate Democratic aide said.

But aides acknowledged that Senate leaders are having similar problems rounding up the 60 votes that they would likely need to overcome a near-certain GOP-led filibuster, and the subject was a contentious topic at Tuesday morning’s leadership meeting, one source said.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin indicated that Baucus has been working to secure the votes of Republicans. “We’ve asked Sen. Baucus to lead us in the Senate to see if there’s a Republican who can be asked to join us,” the Illinois Democrat said. “I know he’s written several provisions of the bill in the hopes that will happen. I don’t know if he has any commitments.”

Asked whether he believes Democrats will secure the votes to move forward, Durbin demurred: “My job is not just whip but worrier. And so I worry about everything until it passes. And so I am worried, and will continue to be, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

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