WASHINGTON — The Senate failed to move forward on a three-month extension of assistance for the long-term unemployed Thursday, leaving it unlikely that Congress would approve the measure soon while undercutting a key aspect of President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan.
Fifty-nine senators, including four Republicans, voted to advance the legislation, falling one vote short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster effort.
Republicans and Democrats, many from the nation’s most economically depressed states, had been trying to reach a solution that would allow people who have exhausted their unemployment insurance to continue receiving benefits as long as the government offset the $6 billion cost.
Ultimately, how to pay for the program proved too big a hurdle for senators to overcome.
“We’ve given them everything they wanted. Paid for,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, flashing his irritation at Republicans who blocked the bill.
He said Democrats would keep pushing to extend the benefits, which expired at the end of last year, cutting off more than 1.3 million Americans. That number has since grown to more than 1.7 million.
Democrats hope to turn the issue into an election-year cudgel and have accused Republicans of ignoring people who are out of work. Republicans have balked at that as political smoke.
“We know it’s a political game,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. “We know they’d like to bring it up every three months and bash Republicans with it.”
Obama has repeatedly pressed Congress to extend the program, an emergency measure enacted during the recession to provide up to 47 weeks of supplemental payments to the long-term unemployed.
“We cannot allow one vote to stand in the way of supporting these Americans as they struggle to find work,” a White House statement said Thursday. “Both sides of the aisle have worked together to prevent this kind of hardship in the past, and neglecting to do so now is unacceptable — especially given the high long-term unemployment rate.”
But even if the Senate had moved forward, getting any extension through the Republican-controlled House was going to be very difficult.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he would entertain a bill only if it was paid for and could stimulate job growth.
Some of his more conservative members, who said the extension would only create more debt for future generations to deal with, were even more hesitant.
“The perception that I get from the Senate right now is, ‘Times are tough. We should make times tougher on our kids to make it easier on us, and then feel better,’” said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. “And I think that’s just not a philosophy I’m willing to support.”