Republicans Explain They Filibustered Unemployment Aid On Principle

WASHINGTON -- Republicans filibustered a Democratic bill to restore unemployment benefits to more than one million Americans because they were standing on principle, lawmakers said.

"People, if you pay 'em for years and years, they won't look for a job," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), putting his feelings in perhaps the starkest terms of a number of senators interviewed by HuffPost.

"This creates no job. It's just a check -- you know that," he said.

"That is a huge expenditure. What we need to do is spend that money on retraining these people that are unemployed -- help them for a few months and get them retrained and get them back in the job market," Shelby added. "That's the problem."

"Republicans actually have principles," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who argued that it didn't matter to him that Democrats were likely to use GOP opposition to the extension of benefits as a campaign issue. "I certainly ran because we're mortgaging our children's future. We're bankrupting this nation."

Other members of their party -- especially those among the half-dozen who tried to cut a deal to extend the insurance -- were more nuanced in their reasoning for blockading the Democratic bid to help the long-term jobless, about 70,000 of whom run out of benefits each week that Congress doesn't move to extend them.

But their reasoning still boiled down to principles that weighed heavier on their minds than thoughts of the people whose benefits they cut off, and who can't find jobs in the still-recovering economy. More than 1.3 million people who have been unemployed for over 6 months lost their federal benefits at the end of December. That number could rise to about 5 million by the end of the year if Congress fails to act.

Democrats initially proposed passing the aid without making cuts elsewhere in the budget, as the Senate has done repeatedly in the past. But with no Republicans willing to go along, they offered a compromise to pay for most of the cost by extending some sequestration cuts into 2024.

That idea was unacceptable even to the more moderate Republicans who bucked their party in a vote last week to move debate ahead on unemployment insurance, like Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Portman wanted the benefits paid for within the scope of the budget deal he voted for in December, which spans from 2013 to 2023.

"What I said to them was, work with us to put it within the 10-year window so there's not a blatant violation of the budget act," Portman said. "That's what we were proposing. They may have had a better idea."

He and other moderates said Democrats did not even make a counteroffer -- which Portman took as a sign of bad faith.

"We wanted to hear back from them with what their better idea was," Portman said. "Instead we got a vote on cloture [ending debate]. Which meant this thing was doomed to fail."

Republicans also took issue with the procedural tactics used by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had initially barred the GOP from holding any votes on amendments in the debate. Ultimately he offered 10, as long as Republicans agreed to subject each amendment to a 60-vote threshold so Democrats could defeat them, and then allow a simple majority vote on final passage. Republicans also had to agree not to raise a budget point of order, which would have defeated the measure because the pay-for was outside the 10-year span allowed under Senate rules.

Democrats likely would have had to take some painful, politically fraught votes, but the measure would have passed in the end, sending the debate and political hot potato to the House.

Republicans said they'd rather leave the long-term unemployed without benefits, and take the political consequences, than accept Reid's offer.

"We are concerned about doing this right, and we came up with a very reasonable way of paying for the extension," said Susan Collins (R-Maine).

"To be honest, we weren't willing to look at it that politically," said Portman. "We were trying to get to a substantive result."

They also are aware Republicans run the risk of being seen as failing to help people who deserve it, and that Democrats can hammer them for it.

"Sure. If that's your goal," said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who also worked to cut a deal. "At some point, you've got to stand up for what you think is the way the Senate ought to operate, and the way that issues ought to be debated, instead of to just play the message game back and forth from election to election to election while the country's getting into deeper and deeper debt."

He acknowledged that his side, in standing up for Senate rules and deficit reduction, might not win in the mind of the public.

"I think what the six of us were trying to do is get past the message game ... and see if we can come together, find a bipartisan way to do something that addresses both issues," Coats said. "One, people out there who legitimately need the support because they're doing everything they can to try to find a job and they can't, and the other is the ever-increasing debt and deficit issue that ultimately is going to harm those people and millions and millions more if we don't get a hold of it."

"Now, can they message it their way, probably confuse people on the basis of procedural stuff that no one understands, including a lot of senators?" Coats said. "Sometimes you have to overcome the politics to do what you think is the right thing."

Portman was not sure Democrats would win the argument.

"I don't think so, because I think their credibility is lost when they reject reasonable compromise and refuse to even talk, which is what happened," he said.

Neither was Johnson.

"Harry Reid is basically telling Republicans, sit down and shut up. That's not the way this Senate is supposed to work," said Johnson, whose state saw about 24,000 people lose unemployment benefits when they were cut off Dec. 28.

"You literally are serving in the minority in a body whose majority doesn't allow any amendments, doesn't even bring appropriations bills to the floor so that you can actually prioritize spending so you can stop bankrupting this nation," he added. "So no, I think that's all part and parcel with the dysfunction that voters across America, particularly in Wisconsin, understand. This isn't the way things are supposed to work."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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