Several Missouri state senators who have been blocking a vote on extending federally-funded jobless benefits said Wednesday that they will only relent if Gov. Jay Nixon agrees to the elimination of $300 million in federal stimulus spending.
The conditional deal highlighted the political stakes involved in a showdown over federal spending that already has caused the loss of benefits for about 10,000 Missouri residents who have been without work for a year and a half.
Earlier Wednesday, one of the Republican senators leading the filibuster said he would allow a vote on the unemployment bill and instead try to block up to $400 million of stimulus spending. But the senators later said at a news conference that they want the Democratic governor to share responsibility for rejecting federal money _ even though they could do so on their own by cutting the stimulus money out of a state budget bill.
"The idea is we want the governor to have ownership in this with us," said Republican Sen. Jim Lembke, of St. Louis.
Nixon did not directly respond to the offer from Republican senators. Instead, he issued a written statement saying he will continue to work with Senate leadership to reauthorize the jobless benefits and to approve the expenditure of $189 million of stimulus funds for schools, which also has been stalled in the Senate.
"I support and stand with the thousands of Missourians who have lost a job through no fault of their own," Nixon said.
At issue is a federal program that provides 20 additional weeks of jobless benefits to people who already have been out of work for 79 weeks. About three dozen states are participating in the program. Seven other states with unemployment rates high enough to be eligible have not passed legislation allowing them to participate. But until Missouri's eligibility ended Saturday because of the filibuster, no state that joined the federal program had later voluntarily quit it.
While stalling Missouri's legislation, some Republican senators have suggested that some people receiving long-term unemployment benefits may not be looking hard enough for jobs. But the senators' primary beef has been with the federal government, which they contend should not continue to run up debt to fund various programs through states.
"My battle on this issue has not been with Missourians that are unemployed, it's with a federal government that continues to live beyond its means and send money to the states that it does not have _ money that it's borrowing from China," Lembke said.
Missouri's unemployment rate has remained above 9 percent for nearly two years. Legislation reauthorizing the extended benefits program easily passed the Republican-led House two months ago before running into trouble in the Senate. Even now, Missouri could retroactively issue benefits to the 10,000 people who have been cut off, if the Senate passes the bill. The legislation also could allow benefits to flow to an additional 24,000 people who are projected to become eligible for the program.
The state labor department has estimated that Missouri could receive $105 million for extended unemployment benefits from April until the program is scheduled to end nationwide next January.
Lembke had said earlier Wednesday that he expected the unemployment legislation to come to a Senate vote this week. But that vote appeared less likely following the news conference detailing the conditional offer to the governor.
One of bill's opponents, Sen. Brian Nieves, told reporters that Nixon's chief of staff "acted like a kindergartner" when senators met with him Monday and offered to relent on the unemployment bill in exchange for cuts to Missouri's federal stimulus spending.
"We told him a little bit about what we expected and literally _ literally _ the governor's chief of staff jumped up, threw his papers down, treated us in the most condescending manner that I've ever been treated in as a senator, stormed out of the room and said, 'That will never happen,'" said Nieves, a Republican from the eastern Missouri town of Washington.
Nixon's office declined to comment about the incident.
The senators have offered to shift their focus to a 2012 budget bill reauthorizing $538 million of federal stimulus money that had been included in Missouri's current budget but is not expected to be spent before the state fiscal year expires June 30. It includes everything from a $100,000 allotment for fish food to $170 million for energy efficiency projects at homes, businesses, schools and public buildings.
Nieves called the package "some of the most horrific, stupid, egregious spending that we could ever use taxpayer dollars" to fund.