GOP leaders gave the talks a major boost over the weekend by dropping a demand that the tax cut be paid for with spending cuts.
The move guaranteed that the measure wouldn't be popular with deficit hawks in either party. In addition to Harkin, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., also came out against the measure on Thursday.
According to a Congressional Budget Office estimate released Thursday, the measure would add $141 billion to the deficit during fiscal 2012-2013, with $52 billion of that cost gradually recouped over the coming decade.
Still, piling most of the measure's cost onto the $15 trillion-plus national debt meant negotiators had to find just $50 billion or so in revenues or spending cuts to finance renewing jobless benefits and fixing the Medicare payment rate.
About $15 billion came as free money to be raised by auctioning off parts of the broadcast television airwaves to wireless companies. Even more would be raised in upcoming auctions, but broadcast license holders would be compensated for giving up spectrum, while $7 billion would be dedicated to creating a new public safety network for emergency first responders. That would complete a key remaining recommendation of the commission that looked into the way emergency officials dealt with the 9/11 terror attacks.
The last major hang-up involved changes to a provision demanded by Republicans to require federal workers contribute more to their generous defined benefit pension plans. Most pension systems have switched to less generous but more mobile defined contribution plans.
The provision, modified to win support from key members of the Maryland delegation, requires newly-hired federal workers to contribute 2.3 percent more of their salaries toward their traditional defined benefit pensions, raising $15 billion over the coming decade.
Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, two Maryland Democrats, had bitterly fought an earlier plan — tentatively agreed to by key Democrats like Baucus — that would have required current federal workers to contribute 1.5 percent more to their pensions.
"We will not let others find excuses to extend the gridlock," Van Hollen and Cardin said in a joint statement. "But it is inherently unfair that the primary offset found for extending unemployment insurance came from additional sacrifice from other middle-class families."
Republicans claimed victory in reducing the number of weeks of jobless benefits that workers would be eligible to receive. The maximum number in states with the highest jobless rates would be cut from 99 weeks to 73 weeks by the end of the year. Republicans had wanted to cut the maximum to 59 weeks. But in states with particularly high unemployment, such as Rhode Island and Nevada, the measure is actually more generous over the next few months than current law.
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