Legislation aimed at extending long-term unemployment benefits narrowly overcame a preliminary vote in the the Senate Tuesday, clearing a path for 1.3 million jobless Americans to get back benefits that expired in December.
In order to continue the debate, six Republican senators, including Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine and Dan Coats of Indiana voted to move the bill forward but on one condition: Democrats would agree to find a way to offset its cost.
The legislation is expected to overcome a simple majority vote in the Senate as early as this week, but House Speaker John Boehner and fellow Republicans have said a vote will only be scheduled if Democrats are willing to negotiate a way to offset the $6.4 billion price tag with cuts to other federal programs.
Democrats have set the issue up to be a 2014 campaign battle, initially pitching the extension of benefits as an emergency that needed immediate attention. But if Democrats are unwilling to negotiate, Republicans argue its because they have prioritized the midterm elections over the unemployed.
"My worry is that they were not that interested in finding a pay for because they wanted a political issue because they think this polls well," says Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
If Congress continues to do nothing, the number of long-term unemployed Americans without benefits is expected to grow to nearly 5 million by the end of the year.
While, the economy has steadily improved, 36.9 percent of unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than 27 weeks, one of the highest long-term unemployment rates since the depression.
Tuesday, Democrats appeared open to negotiations.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that the surprise support for the vote Tuesday revealed "the tectonic plates" of the politics were shifting. He signaled Democrats would look at some offsets in order to get the bill moving through the House. Other moderates in the party also said they were open to finding a way to pay for the extension.
"We ought to do the responsible thing and find a way to pay for this," says Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Other Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., were not opposed to offsetting the costs of extending the unemployment benefits, but have their eye on closing corporate tax loopholes to do it.
"My appetite is to get this thing passed," Levin says. "I got loopholes, which should have been closed a long time ago because they are so bloody enough and unjustified."
But even Levin recognizes convincing Republicans to vote in favor of closing tax loopholes to fund unemployment insurance may be a stretch.