Senate Democrats have little to gain politically by compromising to extend federal unemployment insurance for just three months. It's less than the full-year extension they hoped for and makes it tougher to tar Republicans as obstructionist.
There's one problem: Some Democrats really want this.
"I'd love to push for a 12-month extension," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. "But folks are out of work and without any sort of unemployment insurance, and they're suffering."
A deal to extend the benefits for three months, paid for by reforms to pension policy, is coming together, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said Wednesday. Majority Leader Harry Reid said he is close to securing the 60 votes he would need to advance the legislation.
The shorter-term deal, including the pay-for, represents a retrenchment for Democrats. Reid and his caucus pushed a nearly yearlong, unpaid-for bill on the floor earlier this month, but Republicans blocked it.
What changed, Democrats say, is simply that the more time the issue goes unresolved, the more their long-term unemployed constituents pay the price.
"I understand we're in a political environment and that we have to compromise," said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. "If the three months can be done in a way that is consensus around here I certainly will be a part of that."
Democrats seem resigned to the prospect of retreating on their position.
"If that's what we're able to work for, then so be it," said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who prefers a 12-month extension. "Then we'll revisit this issue in a few months."
Except the extension could die in the Senate, because House Republicans have been unwilling to take the issue up. But for now, among the rank and file, there's an air of compromise in the Senate.
"The good news is the talks are back on track, and I think we're making progress," said GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is helping to broker the deal.
Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who authored the original extension bill that was blocked last month, sounded optimistic about the chances of getting a bill—and amendments—to the floor.
"[We're] gonna test the water on this and see how many Republicans are interested," he said. "The pay-for is three months. So it's favorable."
A bipartisan group of senators might be hashing out a deal, but make no mistake, Democrats have not given up the issue as a political battering ram heading into November.
"Every time we reach the bar, they go back to where they were. They don't want unemployment extension benefits because they don't believe in them," Reid said. "But we do. And we hope that we can get five courageous Republicans to step over the line. We're very close right now."
This article appears in the January 30, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.