Less than a month before recall elections, Wisconsin Senate Republicans struggled Thursday with how to respond to bipartisan pressure for them to vote on a bill extending unemployment benefits.
Democrats seized on the issue, calling on Republicans to quickly schedule a vote on the bill that passed with bipartisan support earlier in the week. The bill's sponsor, a Republican, also urged the Republican Senate leader to schedule a vote.
The Senate is in a box because Assembly Republicans passed a different version of the proposal, reinstating a one-week waiting period before unemployment benefits can start. The Senate bill, in addition to authorizing a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits, did away with the waiting period.
The bill must pass in identical form before it goes to Gov. Scott Walker for his consideration.
Walker supports capturing $88 million in federal money to pay for 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits for jobless Wisconsin workers. He doesn't support ending the one-week waiting period, which was passed as part of his budget last month.
Walker commented on the stalemate at a news conference in Milwaukee where he touted new figures that showed Wisconsin added 9,500 jobs in June, even as unemployment statewide increased from 7.4 percent to 7.6 percent.
"My hope is we can find a way to work between the houses and get that passed as quickly as possible," Walker said. "With or without the delay we have to have the extension."
The Senate, on a bipartisan voice vote, adopted a Democratic amendment on Tuesday doing away with the waiting period. When the Assembly took up the bill Wednesday night, Republicans in control reinstated the waiting period over Democratic objections. The bill, which then only approved the unemployment extension, passed on a bipartisan 81-16 vote.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who has the power to call the Senate into session, issued a terse statement Thursday questioning whether Democrats would support the unemployment extension without the removal of the waiting period.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller wouldn't say whether Democrats would support the bill without the removal of the waiting period.
"Frankly, it's disappointing to see such blatant partisanship on such a bipartisan issue," Fitzgerald said in the statement.
Fitzgerald's spokesman Andrew Welhouse said lawmakers were "in the heat of agreement" on extending the benefits but he didn't know when the Senate would take up the bill again.
"We're trying to find a way to pass this," he said.
The ongoing drama comes as six Republican senators and two Democrats face recall elections next month. If Democrats win five of those races, they will take over control of the Senate.
Sen. Bob Jauch, one of 14 Democratic senators who fled to Illinois for three weeks to block Walker's collective bargaining proposal, called on the Republicans to schedule a vote on the unemployment bill.
"They should be back here today," Jauch said at a news conference just outside the Senate chamber.
The Senate could have met on Thursday, but instead Republicans adjourned the session until Tuesday.
Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine, the Republican sponsor of the bill, sent Fitzgerald a letter urging him to schedule a vote on extending the benefits, saying the debate over the waiting period can wait.
"People who have exhausted benefits and personal resources are at the end of their rope and need this relief," Wanggaard said in the letter. "The only other remaining option is one that is unacceptable -- not extending benefits to those in need."
The extension, which kicks in after people have been out of work for 73 weeks, was estimated to help up to 40,000 unemployed people in Wisconsin. The benefits are worth up to $363 a week and would be available retroactively to April, when they ended.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Milwaukee.