Unemployment Insurance Extension Still in Doubt
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The Fiscal Times
March 3, 2014

The Senate is expected to take another run at renewing the extension of federal unemployment benefits this week, a move that has been filibustered twice by Senate Republicans since the extension expired in late December.

In a press conference last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that he had had “good conversations” with Republicans about a retroactive six-month extension of benefits. Democrats fell one vote shy of breaking the Republican filibuster in their last attempt earlier this month.

Related: ‘Carolina Comeback’ Masks Long-Term Unemployment 

Democrats have targeted a trio of Republican senators as potential yes votes on the extension. Near the top of the list is Sen. Mark Kirk, of Illinois, whose state is facing an unemployment level of 8.6 percent, 30 percent above the national average of 6.6 percent. The others are Sen. Rob Portman who represents Ohio, which faces a 7.2 percent jobless rate, and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, where employment is running at 6.9 percent.

The pressure comes as the Bureau of Economic Analysis revised fourth quarter GDP downward, from 3.2 percent to 2.4 percent, indicating that the economy grew even more slowly in 2013 than it had in 2012.

Portman brought up the issue of the long-term unemployed in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, saying, “Unemployment is extremely high. We know that we have a record number of people on long-term unemployment.” However, host Chris Wallace didn’t press him on whether he will support an extension.

Federal unemployment insurance supplements state unemployment insurance, which typically lasts for about 26 weeks. At the peak of the Great Recession, federal benefits extended to those unemployed for up to 99 weeks, though that was eventually reduced to 73 weeks. Since the federal extension expired in December, nearly 2 million people have lost their benefits, with another 70,000 exhausting theirs every week.

Even if Reid finds a way to forge an extension through the Senate, the proposal’s fate in the House of Representatives remains unclear. Last week, a senior aide to House Speaker John Boehner said that the bill’s path through the House won’t be a smooth one. 

Related: Unemployed and Hoping for Help from Congress

“The Speaker has said multiple times that he’s open to discussing an extension of emergency unemployment benefits as long as it is paid for and includes measures to actually help create new jobs,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said. “Thus far, the president or Senate Democrats have failed to offer such a plan.”

That puts Boehner at odds with the Congressional Budget Office, which has said that the extension of benefits would add approximately 200,000 jobs to the economy by the fourth quarter of 2014.

The question of whether the extension is paid for is trickier. Whether using savings from an unrelated piece of legislation to offset the cost of the unemployment insurance extension is actually “paying for” it is a debatable point, and one that Boehner is evidently prepared to contest.

For their part, Democrats argue that the whole idea of insisting on offsets is wrongheaded in the first place, because Congress has regularly extended benefits in the past, without offsets, when the level of long-term unemployment is above 1.5 percent. It is currently at about 2.5 percent.

Related: The Mental Anguish of the Long-Term Unemployed

However, some Democrats believe Boehner will have a difficult time holding up an extension of unemployment benefits once it clears the Senate. Right now, Senate Republicans are the only ones feeling any political pressure, but according to senior Democratic hill staff that will change dramatically once a bill clears the Senate.

Democrats will use district-level unemployment data to personalize the plight of the long-term unemployed with local media in Republican districts, in hopes of creating grass roots pressure to bring a bill to the floor. 

The general sense on both sides of the aisle is that if Boehner were to allow a bill to extend unemployment benefits to reach the floor, it would have across-the-board support from Democrats, and would get the backing of more than enough Republicans to push it over the line.

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A longtime reporter on the intersection of the federal government and the private sector, Rob Garver is National Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He has written for ProPublica, The New York Times and other publications.