Dems escalate war of words on deficit, unemployment 

The Senate remains embroiled in a debate over extending jobless benefits as Republicans push for the legislation to be paid for and Democrats try to vilify the GOP for keeping needy people from getting their unemployment checks.

The Senate has cleared the first big hurdle in passing the $9.2 billion bill with a vote to bring the legislation to the floor. But Republicans were first able to advance their argument that the measure should not add to the nation's $12.8 trillion debt, a view that coincides with the public's growing concern over such spending.

Democratic and Republican leaders are working on amendments that would require the extension of benefits to be paid for and are seeking ways to cover the cost as even moderate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, say they want to find a way to pay for the bill before passing it.

"I understand there is a big search for offsets and some have been found," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The unemployment rate in California is 12.7 percent. Feinstein said she believes the extension of benefits is needed but she wants to pay for at least some of it. "I think the time has come where we need to find offsets wherever we can now," she said.

Even without the offsets, the bill is likely to pass. But it has increased the pressure on Democrats in Congress to pass a long-term extension of benefits that is at least partially paid for so that they can avoid a battle every month over a new short-term extension that increases the debt.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., offered an amendment that would extend benefits until the end of May, which he said "would ensure that Congress has enough time to work out the differences over the long-term extension."

The Senate passed a bill that would extend unemployment benefits until the end of the year, but the House won't agree to it.

The $150 billion measure extends dozens of tax cuts and halts the 21 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates.

The bill is partly paid for, but House Democrats said $30 billion worth of offsets were used to cover the cost of the president's health care plan.

"So new pay-fors need to be identified," a House Democratic leadership aide said Tuesday. According to the aide, the House will not take up the measure for at least two more weeks.

"It's a very difficult thing to say no to," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. "I don't hear a lot of people saying don't extend unemployment benefits."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., pointed out that Republicans agreed to add to the debt when they passed war funding and estate tax cuts under the Bush administration.

"It seems to me this last stand on the budget deficit is saying let's have a last stand when it comes to some of the most vulnerable Americans," Dorgan said.

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