For the 1.3 million Americans who lost long-term unemployment benefits in December, there may be hope.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told The Associated Press he will bring legislation to extend long-term jobless benefits to the floor on Monday, the first day the Senate returns to work in the new year. The inaugural vote may signal the Democrats' 2014 election strategy: to reduce economic disparity between the wealthy and poor.
Reid will bring a bipartisan compromise bill drafted by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to the floor. In an unusual pairing, Reed and Heller are working together on a bill that could help both of their states, which are tied for the highest unemployment rate in the country at 9 percent.
Obstacles remain, however. Heller and Reed must rally enough support for their bill to overcome a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
According to an aide for Rhode Island's Reed, all 55 Democrats and Heller are expected to vote for the bill, leaving the bill's sponsors scrambling for four last votes before Monday.
Reed and Heller are talking with moderate Republicans in states with high unemployment rates, including Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Rob Portman of Ohio, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois. They are also leaning on Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who have both earned a reputation of crossing the political aisle on key votes in the past.
Heller's and Reed's legislation would extend unemployment insurance for three months and cost roughly $6.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The short-term extension is intended to give Congress a chance to negotiate a longer-term compromise that both parties can agree upon. Republicans have scoffed at the cost of extending the benefits for an entire year, which is estimated to be more than $25 billion.
While the Senate floor remains the scene of the immediate battle, the major roadblock remains whether the House of Representatives will take up the unemployment benefits bill this winter that does not include offsetting the cost.
House Speaker John Boehner has signaled a willingness to restore the unemployment benefits, but not without a trade off.
If [the president] has a plan for extending unemployment benefits I'd truly entertain taking a look at it," Boehner said during a December press conference. "But I'd argue that the president's real focus ought to be creating a better environment for our economy and creating more jobs for the American people. That's where the focus is — not more government programs."
Reed's office says it views the long-term unemployment crisis as an emergency that requires immediate action, not a drawn-out congressional debate on federal spending.
Long-term unemployment remains a national epidemic with nearly every type of worker affected by the slow economic recovery. More than 4 million Americans report that they have been unemployed for at least 27 weeks, the highest level since World War II. While 1.3 million ran out of jobless benefits on Dec. 28, the number of those affected will continue to increase without congressional action.
"I don't predict anything in the House," Senate Majority Leader Reid told The Associated Press. He says the House remains a "black hole of legislation."