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Senators battle again over extending jobless benefits

By Ted Barrett, CNN Congressional Producer
GOP Sen. Tom Coburn said he opposes using a unanimous-consent agreement to extend the benefits package.
GOP Sen. Tom Coburn said he opposes using a unanimous-consent agreement to extend the benefits package.
  • At issue is whether to find budget offsets to pay for the $10-billion-a-month bill
  • Senators were called to the floor late Thursday in an effort to work out a solution
  • GOP Sen. Tom Coburn objects to measure to pass bill under emergency conditions
  • Democrat Dick Durbin: Extending benefits amid recession qualifies as emergency

Washington (CNN) -- On the eve of a two-week spring recess, the Senate found itself embroiled again over the issue of a short-term extension of unemployment benefits and other programs.

At issue, as it was just a few weeks ago when Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky blocked quick passage of a similar extension, is whether Congress should find budget offsets for the bill's cost of almost $10 billion a month, or agree to spend the money without designating how to pay for it.

Senators were called to the Senate floor late Thursday for a rarely used "live quorum" so they could try to work out a way forward.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, is objecting to a commonly used unanimous-consent agreement to pass the bill under emergency conditions, even if it increases the federal deficit. Coburn wants to eliminate additional government spending to pay for the bill.

"If we're going to take the immoral choice and spend money that we don't have and not eliminate programs that are not effective," Coburn said, "I feel obliged to stand in the way of it."

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, said preventing a break in unemployment benefits as the nation tries to recover from economic recession made it necessary to pass the bill immediately.

"We believe that the unemployment situation is an emergency economic situation. The Republicans do not believe that," Durbin said. "It's a very short-sighted approach."

Democratic and Republican leaders spent much of the day seeking a solution that would avoid keeping senators in town through the weekend to overcome Coburn's objection.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said one idea under consideration would be to vote on the issue after the Senate returns from a two-week recess and make the law retroactive so unemployed people would not have their benefits disrupted.

Federal unemployment benefits kick in after the basic state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. During the downturn, Congress has approved up to an additional 73 weeks, which it funds.

These federal benefit weeks are divided into tiers, and the jobless must apply each time they move into a new tier. If the Senate fails to act, the jobless would stop getting checks once they run out of their state benefits or current tier of federal benefits.

While Bunning single-handedly blocked a previous extension, Coburn's fight is gaining support from some Republicans. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from economically hard-hit Maine, said she doesn't want to vote for another extension unless the costs are offset. Collins previously opposed Bunning's objection.

Asked about Coburn taking up the same cause that brought him unwanted media scrutiny earlier this year, Bunning said: "I think it's wonderful."

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.