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February 14, 2016

Jobless Bill Descends Into Procedural Black Hole (Updated)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:17 p.m. | The Senate’s debate over extending unemployment benefits devolved back into an all-too-familiar feud over considering amendments, with Majority Leader Harry Reid saying flatly that he wouldn’t allow GOP alternatives.

“We have been waiting for — this is Thursday — since Monday to get a proposal from the minority, from the Republicans as to what they believe would be a good way to pay for this … other than whack Obamacare,” the Nevada Democrat said in response to a query from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, about allowing amendments.

Reid again dismissed a Republican offer from Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire that would effectively eliminate child tax credits for undocumented immigrants.

“The answer is we’re where we are now. We’ve tried a number of different ways on many pieces of legislation to say OK, let’s have — let’s just do germane amendments. No. How about relevant amendments. No,” Reid said of the Republican response to various amendment offers in recent years.

“We get nowhere with dueling amendments,” Reid also said. “We’ve learned that in the past, dueling amendments doesn’t do the trick.”

That’s in reference to the practice of allowing each party to secure a vote on an amendment to the same piece of legislation knowing full well that neither will be adopted.

Democrats floated a proposal to pay for extended unemployment insurance through mid-November with changes to Medicare many years in the future. But it quickly became clear this was not the kind of bipartisan amendment that would be needed to get a bill through the Senate.

Reid took the procedural steps to block any other amendments, meaning the bill is likely dead until there’s a broader agreement, but nothing looked imminent Thursday.

“Look at it,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said to reporters while holding and pointing at a transcript of Reid’s comments. “Reid said on the floor we don’t get anywhere by doing amendments.”

“This is the world’s greatest deliberative body, and we’re not going to do amendments? That’s insane,” Thune said. “I’d be afraid if I was a Democrat and my leader was saying things like this.”

Sen. Susan Collins said mid-afternoon that she had not yet reviewed the details of the plan, suggesting it represented a Democratic offer rather than a bipartisan agreement. Collins was one of six GOP senators who backed an effort to take up the original unemployment insurance measure, which would run for three months and does not contain offsets that would get the measure to the 60 votes needed to cut off a potential filibuster.

“I am representing the people of Indiana and their voice is shut down,” Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, another Republican who supported the first cloture motion, told Reid on the floor.

The Democrats’ proposal would provide expanded unemployment benefits for about 11 months, with a package of offsets revolving around another extension of a mandatory spending sequester, this time into 2024. The 2011 budget deal set up a system that ultimately provided for automatic meat ax cuts on both the discretionary and mandatory sides of the ledger.

The budget agreement reached last month between Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., used an extension of the budget savings on the mandatory side to help increase the amount of money available in the short term for discretionary spending.

Update 6:17 p.m.

Preliminary numbers from the Congressional Budget Office make it even less likely that GOP senators will ultimately accept the latest proposal from Democrats. It appears the CBO won’t give credit within the usual window for the further extension of the mandatory sequester.

A chart obtained by CQ Roll Call shows a deficit increase of about $17.1 billion over the 10-year budget window used in CBO scoring. Further extending the Medicare sequester would generate significant budget savings after 10 years, but that is not within the budget window.

Agreeing to count those savings now would represent a departure from normal practice in defining budget-neutral legislation.

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