Senate discussions on unemployment insurance have continued long past what anyone expected, with Democratic leaders saying at one point on Thursday that they were on the brink of a deal.
But hours later, it became clear the proposal had fallen flat among the Republicans it was crafted to attract, stalling any momentum the issue had taken on throughout the week.
"I think they're a long way from it," said Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.
Republicans aren't supporting the offsets proposed by Sens. Dean Heller and Jack Reed to pay for a one-year extension of unemployment benefits — imposing sequester-like budget cuts for another year.
As details of the proposal circulated, it became clear that some Republicans consider the pay-for in the Democrats' deal as fake as Monopoly money. "It's a gimmicky way of doing it," said Cornyn, who won't support it. "We spend money now and we'll get religion later on."
The result is that Democrats are planning to put both the current three-month measure as well as a proposed one-year, paid-for extension on the Senate floor without Republican support, according to a senior Democratic aide. Absent some agreement, neither is likely to move forward.
House GOP leaders, meanwhile, aren't expecting to have to address unemployment because they don't believe the Senate will reach a deal. To that end, House Speaker John Boehner reiterated Thursday that House Republicans are willing to extend unemployment benefits on two conditions: that they are paid for and that the legislation include something to create private-sector jobs.
The big news when Boehner offered these same conditions a month ago was that he wasn't flat-out saying, "No." Yet he may need to go no further, if the deal falls flat in the Senate.
Senate Democrats are actually trying to accommodate Boehner's first condition, which has been echoed by Senate Republicans. To pay for a year-long extension, Democrats had proposed continuing the across-the-board sequester budget caps for another year and limiting the number of weeks some jobless beneficiaries would receive aid.
Senate Republicans aren't biting. But even if they did, Boehner's second condition could be the real bogeyman. Earlier this week, the speaker's office put out a statement offering three proposals to "put people back to work." All were nonstarters for Democrats and the administration: creating new exemptions under Obamacare, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, and enacting an energy-regulation bill that the White House has threatened to veto. It remains to be seen whether there is any acceptable GOP job-creating legislation that Democrats could accept to be paired with an unemployment extension.
It is worth recalling, however, that the Senate began its debate with these kinds of laughers, too. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's first request when the Senate took up the unemployment extension on Tuesday was that the individual mandate under Obamacare be postponed for one year. Everyone knew Democrats would flatly reject that suggestion. On the Democratic side, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initially asked for a three-month, $6.5 billion extension with no offsets, which was a nonstarter for Republicans.
With opening shots out of the way, lawmakers began conversations in earnest over how to get a bill passed. But winning over enough Republicans to continue to final passage has proven to be an almost impossible hurdle. Senate Republicans are so angry with Reid for refusing to allow a full-fledged amendment process on the bill that many will not vote for a Reed/Heller deal if it is the only game in town.
"This still doesn't solve the basic problem that Republicans have 24 amendments, almost all of which would improve the bill. Senator Reid's gotten into a bad habit into shutting out any amendments," Cornyn said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said late Thursday that she hadn't been briefed on the discussions about how to pay for the extension. Murkowski was one of six Republicans who voted to allow the unemployment measure to proceed on Tuesday, and her lack of a briefing was an indication that perhaps few Republicans have been consulted on the issue.
"I don't want to be unsympathetic, but I just don't want to automatically advance it with a rubber stamp," Murkowski said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, among the strongest advocates of extending long-term unemployment benefits even without an offset, also had not been briefed on the details of the unemployment deal. Harkin indicated he would not be comfortable with sequestration budget levels for another year. He is also a lead negotiator on the omnibus appropriations bill set to be voted on next week, which is abiding by the new budget caps. The negotiations are hard enough under those constraints, let alone the even more austere climate Democrats are discussing.
Still, Harkin said he would be amenable to paying for the extension, as long as the offsets don't do harm elsewhere.
"There's a lot of games being played around here," he said. "If there's some place that they can offset it without doing any harm, fine."