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Extending Unemployment Benefits Is Still Going To Be A Long, Tough Slog

After Democrats' small victory Tuesday in the Senate, many roadblocks still lie ahead to restarting the benefits program.

Posted on January 7, 2014, at 5:18 p.m. ET

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The Senate passed a procedural vote Tuesday to advance a bill that would extend federal unemployment benefits for three months, but that's only the first of many steps required for the benefits program to start again.

Democrats won over five Republicans, in addition to the bill's co-sponsor Sen. Dean Heller, to garner exactly the 60 votes needed to pass the first procedural hurdle towards getting the bill through the Senate.

The six Republicans who voted yes were Heller, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Dan Coats, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins.

But several of those GOP votes came with a rider — that the final version of the bill offset some of the estimated $6.4 billion cost of the extension. The current bill does not offset any of the costs.

"I am willing to support this short-term extension if it's paid for," Ayotte told reporters. "If we don't get to a debate, how can we have the opportunity to offer potential amendments or to have votes on amendments that would pay for it?"

Majority Leader Harry Reid said he's open to "serious" proposals from the GOP on how to offset the cost. What exactly, if anything, Reid will consider a serious proposal remains unclear.

Sen. John Thune plans to introduce a four-part cost offsetting amendment that includes a change to Obamacare's employer mandate. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered an amendment to delay Obamacare's individual mandate Tuesday, Reid quickly blocked it.

Under Thune's proposal, if an employer hires a long-term unemployed worker, that worker would not be counted as part of the total employee count under Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act requires businesses with more than 50 employees to provide health care for their employees or pay a fine.

Other GOP senators plan to introduce amendments as well.

If a cost offsetting amendment is not agreed to, some Republicans could switch and vote against closing debate on the bill, effectively leaving it dead in the Senate.

And, even if the bill does clear the Senate, an unemployment benefits extension still faces tough challenges in the Republican-controlled House.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters he is relying on the media to continue to tell the stories of those who need the benefits in order to convince Republicans to pass the bill, without any cost offsets.

But according to a statement from Speaker John Boehner released just after the vote, that doesn't seem likely.

"Far too many Americans are still unemployed in President Obama's economy. For each of them, it's a personal crisis that we cannot overlook," Boehner said. "Getting these people back on their feet starts with a strong safety net – six months of unemployment benefits – that we continue to have in this country. But the ultimate solution to joblessness is more jobs."