WASHINGTON - Compromise talks on a new program of long-term jobless benefits ran aground in the Senate today, leaving the fate of the measure in extreme doubt while Republicans and Democrats vied for political advantage in the wreckage.
"This is a dispiriting moment for millions of Americans," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., whose state's unemployment is measured at 9 percent.
At issue was a struggle over the possible resurrection of a program that expired on Dec. 28, immediately cutting off support for more than 1.3 million unemployed workers who have exhausted state-paid benefits that generally run for 26 weeks.
The legislation is the first of the year in the Senate, and an early preview of a competition between the two parties for support in this year's election from economically squeezed voters.
After more than a week of negotiations, though, the Senate blocked a pair of Democratic-drafted proposals from advancing, after first denying Republicans a chance to change the legislation - all on near party-line votes.
The White House blamed Republicans, but pledged to keep working with both parties to find a way forward. "It's very disappointing that Republicans in the Senate chose to block action tonight on a compromise solution," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Clearly anticipating the outcome, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans in advance of resorting to obstruction to block help to families in need.
"We have a filibuster before us again. Another one," Reid said. Republicans want to "have their cake and eat it, too," he said, by having the Senate vote on their own proposed changes in the legislation without guaranteeing to then let the measure pass afterward.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell countered that Reid was trying to "fix the result" by requiring Republicans to amass 60 votes behind any of their proposed changes, an all-but-impossible threshold to meet given the circumstances. He said GOP efforts to improve the measure had been checked by Reid at every turn, even if one of the Republican proposals had cross-party appeal.
The day's events are likely to be the Senate's last word on the unemployment measure until late this month or next month at the earliest.
Reed and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said separately they hoped compromise efforts wouldn't end, but Reid made no immediate announcement about when the issue might return to the Senate floor.