(CNN) - The prospects for passing an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed got significantly worse Wednesday after two Republican senators who voted with Democrats earlier this week said they will pull their much-needed support unless Democrats come up with a way to pay for the $6.4 billion bill.
Without the votes of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who voted on Tuesday to begin debate on the bill, Democrats won’t be able to get over a 60 vote threshold needed to break a GOP filibuster and end debate on the measure, which would extend the benefits for the next three months.
Democrats, meanwhile, appeared to be hardening their position. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who had been working with Democrats and Republicans to see if they could find offsets acceptable to both parties, issued a statement saying a deal was unlikely.
“I don’t think there’s much enthusiasm for a three-month offset deal on our side,” Schumer said.
The White House and congressional Democrats said the legislation was a top priority but Republicans accused them of sabotaging their own bill – by refusing to come up with a compromise offset - in order to have a political issue they could use to attack Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections.
“I will not vote to end debate without offsets,” Ayotte said at a Capitol news conference where she, Portman, and other Republicans, were unveiling a plan to pay for benefit extension by getting rid of a child tax credit improperly claimed by some immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
Previously, Ayotte had only said she “likely” would oppose ending debate, leaving her room to still support the bill if offsets weren’t agreed to.
Portman was also firm. He said he was assured by Democrats that amendments related to offsets and reforms to the unemployment programs would be allowed and was concerned Democrats now were balking at proposals Republicans were offering.
“If I know that it’s going to be paid for and we’ll then engage in a process of reform, then I’d be able to support it,” said Portman. “But if not, I won’t be able to.”
For years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been luke warm about offsets for long-term unemployment benefits. He’s argued they amount to emergency spending. However, on Tuesday he did open the door to considering them if Republicans had “reasonable” proposals.
Since then senators from both parties say there have been some private discussions about finding a path forward but little progress had been made. President Barack Obama called a handful of Republicans including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine who spoke to him Monday. Collins said the President was more interested in discussing her ideas for reforming unemployment programs than whether or how to pay for them.
“If Republicans are so interested in paying for this measure, they should propose a reasonable way to do so. That doesn’t attack the Affordable Care Act or punish American children, as these two proposals they presented yesterday do,” Reid said on the floor Wednesday. “They should propose an offset that might actually pass. Instead they propose a string of political amendments each more doomed to failure than the last one they offered.”
Asked how serious he thinks Democrats are in finding offsets, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican leader, said he was “skeptical” and said if Democrats wouldn’t agree to offsets “the outcome looks pretty dismal.”
Most of the other Republicans who voted to take up the bill – including Collins, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana – say they want offsets but haven’t demanded them as a pre-condition for moving forward.
“I have not drawn a line in the sand about what I’m ultimately going to do on this this bill because my focus is to get it offset and that’s what I think is entirely reasonable and should happen. The bill will pass overwhelmingly if it is offset,” Collins said.
Portman said he wants to find a way to approve the benefits and has a number of ideas he wants the Senate to debate.
He said Democrats were caught off guard when six Republicans voted with them to take up the bill.
“I think they had hoped, frankly, some of them, from a political point of view, that they could say Republicans were obstructing,” Portman said. “I think we kind of took them by surprise and instead we’re saying we absolutely don’t want to obstruct.”