ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Senate swung back into action today after taking a break for the holidays. By a wide margin, senators confirmed the nomination of Janet Yellen as the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve Board. But a vote was postponed at the last minute on moving ahead with bipartisan legislation that restores recently lapsed benefits for the long-term unemployed. Joining me from the Capitol is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. Hello, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: The Senate went out last month on an acrimonious note, with Republicans - in the minority - doing everything possible to delay nominations that could no longer be blocked by filibusters, thanks to a rules change the Democrats pushed through. And yet Janet Yellen has now been confirmed to head the Fed. Did Republicans have a change of heart?
WELNA: Well, Robert, this was no surprise. Several Republicans had already voted before the break to move Yellen's nomination forward. And 11 of them voted today to confirm her, as did every voting Democrat; for a final tally of 56 to 26. Because Republicans were divided over her nomination, they chose not to fight it. But that doesn't mean we won't be seeing a lot of GOP opposition this year to other nominations, especially for lifetime appointments to the federal bench.
SIEGEL: Now, the Senate was set to follow the Yellen vote with a procedural vote on a matter the Democrats - and especially, President Obama - are turning up the heat on: reinstating the unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, benefits that the Congress allowed to expire 10 days ago. What happened?
WELNA: Well, weather and politics. Seventeen senators from both parties did not show up for the Yellen vote because of canceled and delayed flights. It was clear Democrats were not going to get the 60 votes they needed to move forward. And those Republicans who opposed moving forward felt like this was being turned into just a showboat, so they objected. Majority Leader Harry Reid acquiesced in this exchange with the Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: And it's transparent that this is a political exercise, not a real effort to try to fix a prob -
SEN. HARRY REID: Mr. President...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The majority leader.
REID: I ask unanimous consent the vote be scheduled tomorrow - 10 a.m.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is there objection?
WELNA: And there was no objection, so the vote is being held tomorrow.
SIEGEL: And what's the thinking? Is it likely to move forward?
WELNA: Well, you know, this three-month extension of those benefits has Nevada Republican Dean Heller as a co-sponsor. So only four other Republicans are needed to reach the filibuster-proof, magic number of 60. Democrats argue this measure helps the U.S. economy as much as the 1.3 million people whose benefits ran out last month. Here's the bill's Democratic co-sponsor, Rhode Island's Jack Reed.
SEN. JACK REID: I think it would be foolish, frankly, to take a program that we are confident can create 200,000 jobs, can increase GDP by .2 percent, that is one of the best forms of physical policy to stimulate demand and economic growth; and say we're not going to do it.
WELNA: You know, tomorrow's vote could be close. Republicans are under a lot of pressure to vote against moving forward. There were letters today from the conservative Washington groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action, warning against voting in favor. They say this extension should be paid for, which it isn't. If it fails, you can be certain that Majority Leader Reid will bring it up again and again. Democrats feel they have public opinion on their side, in this fight.
SIEGEL: So for the Senate, Day 1 in 2014 is in the books. Beyond - thinking a little bit longer term, what can we expect from the Senate this year?
WELNA: Well, since Democrats set the Senate's agenda, we should expect more measures addressing rising income inequality, such as raising the minimum wage. There could be drama next month over raising the debt ceiling. And we're certain to see a lot of slow-walked nominations that can't be filibustered, in the end. While the Senate alone votes on nominations, for just about everything else, the Republican-run House has to act as well, and even if we do see the Senate revive the lapsed unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage, don't expect the House to do the same. I think House Republicans would rather spend their time this year going after the Affordable Care Act. That's what they see as their best card to play in the run-up to this coming fall's midterms.
SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, David.
WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna, on Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.