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Republicans stymie efforts to advance unemployment benefits bill in Senate

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., leaves following a news conference to discuss unemployment insurance, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., leaves following a news conference to discuss unemployment insurance, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans narrowly blocked the advance of legislation to restore benefits for the long-term unemployed on Thursday for the second time in less than a month, and Democrats said they intended to call yet another vote on the issue.

"We're one Republican vote away from restoring unemployment benefits for 1.7 million Americans," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.

The White House called the outcome disappointing.

The measure called for a three-month renewal of an expired program that provided up to 47 weeks of federal benefits when state-paid aid runs out, generally after 26 weeks. The cost was estimated at slightly more than $6 billion over a decade. It would have been offset by lowering pension obligations for some companies, a step that would have increased their taxable income.

The vote was 58-40, two shy of the 60 that backers of the measure needed to prevail. That understated the measure's true support, because Reid sided with opponents at the last minute in a manoeuvr that will permit him to have the issue reconsidered under the Senate's rules.

Republican Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire sided with 52 Democrats and two independents on the vote.

The attempt to renew expired jobless benefits was the first legislation that majority Democrats placed before the Senate this year, and represents the leading edge of their attempt to gain support among economically-strapped voters at a time polls show that voters are concerned about the gap between rich and poor.

At a news conference before the vote, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said bills to raise the federal minimum wage, provide women with equal pay for equal work and support early-childhood education would be put to a vote in the near future.

Speaking of Republicans, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Democrats had "met them more than halfway" in proposing a bill that was fully paid for and in offering to give GOP lawmakers the opportunity to make changes if they could round up enough votes.

Reed, who represents a state with 9 per cent unemployment, said some Republicans have called the long-term unemployed immoral, a description he said was "somewhat offensive."

One Republican critic of the bill, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, issued a statement that said, "We can get Americans back to work and our economy booming again, but this is not achieved by Washington turning a temporary federal benefit into another welfare program."

At the time the old program expired at the end of the year, officials said it cut off benefits for 1.3 million long-term jobless. Since then, Democrats say the total has swelled to more than 1.7 million.

Supporters of the legislation say that while joblessness overall is receding, long-term unemployment is at a historically high level.

Under the legislation voted on Thursday unemployed workers whose state benefits have expired would be eligible for a maximum of 47 additional weeks of aid, depending on the level of joblessness within their states.

The vote came three weeks after Republicans prevented legislation from advancing that would have resurrected the expired program at reduced levels. Unlike the revised bill, the earlier one would have raised deficits under congressional budget scorekeeping standards.

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