WASHINGTON — The Senate plunged into an election-year session Monday that promises to be long on political maneuvering and less so on accomplishment, beginning with a slow-motion struggle over legislation to renew lapsed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
“I’m optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the new year will bring a renewed spirit of cooperation to this chamber,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the first remarks of the year on the Senate floor.
Within moments, he pivoted, accusing Republicans of “never ending obstruction” to President Barack Obama’s proposals over the past five years.
A test vote on the unemployment bill — the year’s first showdown — was postponed at the last minute until Tuesday morning at the behest of Republicans, who noted that more than a dozen lawmakers had been unable to return to Washington because of bad weather.
Even then the rhetoric was heated. “It’s transparent this is a political exercise,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, moments before Reid agreed to the delay.
Democratic supporters of the three-month extension of jobless benefits said they were close to the 60 votes needed to advance the White House-backed bill. Their chances hinged on securing backing from at least four Republicans in addition to Sen. Dean Heller of high-unemployment Nevada, a co-sponsor.
The bill would restore between 14 weeks and 47 weeks of benefits to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless affected when the program expired on Dec. 28. Payments, which average about $256 weekly, will be cut off to thousands more in the coming weeks as their initial 28 weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits expire.
The bill is the first on the Senate’s agenda for the year and part of a heaping portion of leftovers from 2013.
House and Senate lawmakers are negotiating privately over legislation to keep the government operating normally when current funding expires Jan. 15. Agreement is expected quickly, since the two sides and the White House reached agreement on an overall spending cap before adjourning for the holidays.
A separate set of talks is on legislation to replace expired farm and feeding programs. And just ahead is a requirement to raise the nation’s debt limit.
The House is scheduled to return from its year-end break on Tuesday, and already, majority Republicans have served notice they will continue to challenge Democrats over the health care program known as “Obamacare.”
In a memo to the rank and file last week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said there would be a vote quickly on legislation requiring “prompt notification in the event of a breach involving personal information.”