WASHINGTON — No end is in sight for the plight of hundreds of thousands of jobless people whose unemployment benefits ran out this month, after the Senate failed Thursday to garner enough votes to pass the funding.
Sixty votes were needed under Senate rules to shut off debate and move to passage, but the vote was 57-41, so the plan to pay for extended unemployment benefits, summer jobs for at-risk youth, help for ailing state budgets and other emergency programs fell three votes short. Forty Republicans and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., voted against ending debate, and two senators didn't vote.
As a result, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate plans to move on to other business, leaving the fate of the emergency plan uncertain.
"We can't pass it unless we get some Republicans," he explained. Democrats control 59 Senate seats.
One piece of the emergency bill survived. Medicare payments to doctors were due to drop 21 percent earlier this month, but the Senate approved a six-month fix that will increase payments by 2.2 percent through Nov. 30. The House of Representatives agreed late Thursday.
Left in limbo is Senate Democratic leaders' carefully crafted bill to do more, their latest effort to woo not only Republicans, but also moderate Democrats concerned about deficit spending.
The debate turned into a preview of what's to come on the campaign trail, as Republicans railed against deficit spending and Democrats countered that the GOP was heartless.
"Those who want to help middle-class America will vote 'yes.' Those who want to protect corporate America will vote 'no,''' Reid said before the vote.
Not so, countered Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "So the only thing Democrats are insisting on in this debate is that we add to the debt," he said. "The principle they're defending here is not some program."
An estimated 900,000 people are faced with having extended unemployment benefits run out this month. Money to help fund summer jobs for underprivileged young people remains unavailable, and states have been clamoring for help with their Medicaid costs.
For years, such emergency measures have been approved routinely, and lawmakers usually have been willing to increase the deficit to pay for them.
This year however, with ballooning deficits becoming a major campaign issue, deficit spenders faced resistance, first from Republicans, who stalled the extensions earlier this year, and this month from moderate Democrats.
The package last month was a $200 billion measure, but was pared back when House centrists balked. A slimmed-down bill passed the House with 34 Democrats voting no, then stalled in the Senate.
The latest plan the Senate considered Thursday still would have added $33.3 billion to the deficit over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, but it made significant changes from the original plan. Gone was a $25 increase in payments to unemployed workers. Help for states to pay the cost of Medicaid, originally $24 billion, was cut to $16 billion.
An 8 cent per barrel tax on oil would have risen to 49 cents, raising about $18 billion over 10 years, and taxes would have gone up for managers of hedge funds, private-equity funds, venture capital firms and other business partnerships.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a key moderate who voted no, said her colleagues had lost sight of what matters.
In an impassioned floor speech, she decried the "yawning chasm that exists between the artificially generated political landscape in Washington and the actual real world state of our economy that Americans have been experiencing on a daily basis beyond the Capital Beltway."
The bill, she said, is "taxes, taxes, taxes, spending, spending, spending, which will do nothing to grow our economy."
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