Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Dean Heller, Rob Portman, and Dan Coats are supposed to be working with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass an extension on benefits for the long-term unemployed. Those benefits expired for over one million Americans on December 28, and it looked like this task force was finally making progress on an extension last week. But Coats said today through a spokesperson that Reid hasn't contacted him in weeks. This communication issue may be a sign that the Senate isn't working quite as hard as we thought on a deal.
As Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney write at The Huffington Post, negotiations have descended "into chaos." Coats's spokesperson said this morning, "At no time over the past few weeks has the Democratic leadership reached out to Senator Coats or his staff." Democrats have expressed they've been using Collins as a go-between, but Coats's spokesperson, Matt Lahr, said that makes no sense. Last week, Coats seemed happy to work with Democrats, telling Politico, "the substance is there for an agreement."
One thing that's changed? The Democrats are now making a bigger ask. Reid wants to retroactively extend benefits for six months, not three, since February's almost over. This isn't a deal-breaker for Republicans, necessarily. It's just more to pay for. Lahr expressed Tuesday that Coats "has consistently said that any extension of the emergency unemployment insurance benefits program must be paid for and include measures to reform the program." One reform measure that Coats and Portman have proposed is an amendment to prevent people from withdrawing both unemployment and disability benefits.
It seems that there has been more thinking than doing, unfortunately. Politico's Burgess Everett reports, "Aides in both parties said there’s been little contact between Reid and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell in recent days, and many Republicans remain convinced that Democrats ultimately would rather portray the GOP as the obstacle to restoring benefits, rather than pass a bill." One top Republican aide told Everett that the Democrats "aren’t serious about passing anything."
Even if the Senate does get a bill together, it will have to pass the Republican-controlled House. The House leadership hasn't expressed interest in passing an extension. But Reid says he's not giving up — he told reporters Tuesday, "I’m going to try again, yes. I’ve had some good conversation with Republican senators, plural. The vast majority of them want it go away, but there are some Republican senators of good will who are trying to work to move forward on this."