The 1.3 million Americans who lost long-term unemployment benefits in December are stuck in the middle of a congressional game of chicken.
A bipartisan bill restoring benefits to America's unemployed passed a procedural hurdle in the Senate Tuesday, but the legislation remains in limbo as Republicans demand spending cuts to federal programs in exchange for the $6.5 billion bill.
Leading that charge, House Speaker John Boehner reiterated Thursday during a meeting with reporters that he would not bring any benefits bill to the House floor unless it was offset by additional spending reductions. He also had an additional request: Boehner said he repeatedly has asked the White House to include provisions in the bill that would help create jobs, not just give money to those without employment. Republicans have floated the idea of tacking on an amendment that would set in motion the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a longtime political flashpoint between the two parties.
"I have not talked to the president or Democratic leaders about this issue because I have laid out what needs to happen, and they have yet to come forward with any plan," Boehner said Thursday.
Once the Senate began debating an extension of long-term jobless benefits, Republicans started trying to refocus the debate. Instead of talking about extending a safety net, the GOP is discussing how to reboot the economy to help America's poor. They also are putting pressure on Senate Democrats and the White House to take up jobs bills the House already has passed.
"We are going to remain focused on creating jobs and get Americans back to work," Boehner said when asked about the role the House is playing in the unemployment benefits debate.
This week, prominent House Republicans -- from Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. -- have made pitches to help Americans rely less on the government and more on a healthy economy.
Across Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans also are trying to refocus the conversation. In an effort to not be seen as obstructionists, GOP senators in the past few days have proposed 24 amendments to offset the cost of extending unemployment benefits -- measures that range from delaying the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate to cracking down on illegal immigrants who cash in on the child tax credit. None of those proposals seems to be palatable to Democrats, however.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressed optimism Thursday that the Senate could work out a benefits deal. Reid has signaled a willingness to offset the costs of the bill under the condition that unemployment benefits be extended for an entire year instead of three months -- a move estimated to cost more than $24 billion annually.
A Reid aide confirmed the leader met Thursday morning with the original bill's sponsors, Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Aside from the human costs, a lot rests on Democrats' willingness to compromise. The GOP has accused Democrats of using the unemployment benefits bill as a wedge issue ahead of the 2014 election, saying it's a problem Democrats would rather campaign on than actually solve. Polls show that a majority of Americans support giving additional support to the country's long-term unemployed.