More than a million unemployed Americans could soon receive a post-holiday bonus check from the federal government, if congressional Democrats get their way.
The Senate will take up a bill Monday evening to restore unemployment-insurance benefits to the 1.3 million Americans who stopped receiving checks just three days after Christmas, after Congress chose not to extend the program.
The measure will continue the benefits for three months and reimburse the long-term unemployed for the weeks of lost benefits in December and January while Congress gets to work on a long-term solution.
The vote fulfills a promise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made before the close of the last congressional session to deal with the benefits in January, after House Republicans blocked an extension from being included in the final budget bill and left town for the holidays.
The measure, sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev. — who represent the two states with the highest unemployment rates in the nation — will have to clear a cloture hurdle on Monday, which means that five Republicans will have to vote with the entire Democratic caucus for the Senate to proceed to the bill.
But even if it clears the Senate, the bill faces an uphill climb in the House, where the Republican leadership has signaled opposition to extending the benefit without paying for it.
"I think it's going to be a pretty tough sell," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said before the holiday recess.
House Speaker John Boehner told reporters last month that he would consider renewing the benefits if Congress could offset the cost. Democrats pushed hard in a media blitz over the recess to bring attention to the issue, hoping to ratchet up pressure on Republicans to accept an extension without an offset. But Boehner's position has not changed, according to spokesman Michael Steel.
Before leaving for the holiday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., proposed using savings expected in the farm bill to pay for the extension, but Republicans blocked that idea. The Senate bill does not include any offsets, and Democrats, who view renewing the benefits as an emergency, are reluctant to put any such pay-fors on the table.
"There's no secret back pocket," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Friday when asked whether Democrats were weighing any potential offsets.
The Reed-Heller bill, which extends benefits through March 31, has a $6.5 billion price tag and sets up another potential showdown over the benefits that could coincide with a congressional throw-down over the debt limit later this year. That might not be a bad omen, from the point of view of those depending on the benefits, because lawmakers have yoked unemployment insurance and the debt ceiling together before. Congress paired the last extension — the one that expired in December — with the fiscal-cliff legislation that passed in early 2013.
But the debt-limit fight may not come to a head for months, and the majority of those who lost their unemployment insurance benefits on Dec. 28 had already been out of work for at least 26 weeks, relying on state support before the federal funds kicked in.
Even retroactive legislation could come too late for some of the families who rely on the benefits, if the extension fight continues to drag on, Democratic leaders in both chambers are pushing families to come forward with their stories, hoping to increase the pressure on Republicans to act.
"Let's say the blizzard left 1.3 million people without money," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., referring to the storm that dumped snow on much of the nation Friday. "I think then there'd be a realization that it's an emergency."
For now, with little leverage of their own, House Democrats are betting the combination of swift Senate passage and those heart-rending stories from constituents will persuade Republicans to take up the bill.
"I hope it will be passed by the Senate," Van Hollen said. "That will provide some momentum in the House. I think that can make it more difficult for the speaker to refuse to take action."