WASHINGTON — A Democratic push to extend unemployment benefits that have expired squeaked past a Republican filibuster Tuesday, setting off intense negotiations to find a way to pay for the program and win over a skeptical House leadership.
The Senate’s 60-to-37 vote to take up a three-month extension of benefits passed with no room to spare, and some of the six Republicans who voted yes made clear they want the cost of the extension set off by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Still, it was the rarest of Washington moments, a genuine surprise.
“It was in the balance till the very last minute,” said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and an author of the measure with Senator Dean Heller, a Republican of Nevada.
President Obama, flanked by unemployed Americans as he spoke in the East Room of the White House, tried to keep up the pressure, first on the Senate to pass the bill and then on the House.
“We’ve got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay,” he said, even as he praised the surprise outcome.
But House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio made clear he would exact a price for consideration in the House, saying that not only would an extension of expired benefits have to be paid for but that it must also be tied to Republican priorities, such as building the Keystone XL oil pipeline, expanding exemptions from the Affordable Care Act, and opening energy exploration on federal land.
“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” Boehner said after the Senate vote. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”
On Monday night, Senate leaders abruptly postponed a vote on the measure. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, was about to call the vote when the Senate’s number two Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, accused him of manufacturing a political issue by holding a vote with 17 senators absent, mostly because of weather delays.
Reid then gruffly asked for consent to postpone it until Tuesday.
Conservative Republicans remained resolute in opposition, contending that issuing emergency unemployment checks would only discourage job seekers.
But five Republicans besides Heller sided with Democrats to take up the extension: Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Dan Coats of Indiana, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Collins said she spoke at length with the president Monday, inviting him to help find a way to pay for the bill and to make structural changes to the unemployment program.
She suggested that after a year, benefits should be linked to enrollment in job-training programs, a suggestion she said Obama was open to.
Democrats were cautious about the bill’s chances of being enacted.
Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York said it had taken weeks to reach a budget deal that included savings about twice as large as lawmakers need to find for the unemployment extension.
He said he feared Republicans allowed the bill to go forward only to steer Democrats into a “cul-de-sac” or a “Mexican standoff” in which both sides offer their own measures to pay for the benefits but neither would compromise.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, offered a glimpse of that when he suggested that the bill be paid for by a one-year reprieve from the mandate that uninsured individuals purchase health insurance or face a tax penalty, and the reversal of a measure in the just-passed budget that slows the growth of veterans benefits.
The issue of extending unemployment benefits and a separate push to raise the minimum wage, which is also on the Senate’s docket, are looking as much like campaign themes as legislative ventures.
Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican from Illinois, whom Obama tried and failed to reach Monday, said Democrats wanted “to have Republicans vote no, so they can bash them in the next election.”