Advocates of renewing an extension of federal unemployment benefits are hopeful that a bipartisan agreement struck in the Senate will pass and be sent to the House of Representatives next week. But in addition to watching the action in the Senate, they increasingly have their eye on the calendar.
The House of Representatives will go into a two-week recess beginning after business concludes on April 10. Even if the Senate sends a bill to the House as early as Friday, there will be only eight legislative days remaining for the House to pass it or, alternatively, to approve a different bill and negotiate an agreement with the Senate. Otherwise, the House will go into recess, and further work on an extension of benefits will be postponed to April 28 at the earliest – a full four months after they expired in December.
Considering that the bill currently under consideration is, by all indications, deeply unpopular with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) as well as many of his House Republican colleagues, it’s a very tight deadline.
The legislation in the Senate would extend benefits for five months, retroactive to December 28. The federal extension supplements state benefits, which typically expire after about 26 weeks. In some cases, the federal program allows recipients to continue receiving benefits for a full year or more. Since December, well over 2 million workers who would have been eligible for federal benefits this time last year, have been cut off from the program. Late Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture in hopes of getting a vote on the Senate proposal this week. But with the House leaving town Thursday night, and not returning to work until Tuesday, there will likely be little progress on tht side of the capital until the middle of next week at the earliest.
Boehner has indicated in the past that the Senate bill does not meet his two criteria: that it be “fiscally responsible” and contain measures to create jobs. Advocates of the Senate bill, including Republican senators who support it, argue that the measure is fully paid for and ought to be considered fiscally responsible. On the question of job creation, the Congressional Budget Office has indicated in the past that an extension of benefits would create as many as 200,000 jobs, if the extension lasted a full year.
Congress has renewed the extension multiple times in the years following the financial crisis and the Great Recession. And historically, during other economic recoveries, has kept the extension in place until the level of long-term unemployment was much lower than it is now, at 2.5 percent of the workforce.
“The highest long-term unemployment rate at which it has been allowed to expire is 1.3 percent,” said Chad Stone, chief economist for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Not doing it, first of all, means that we continue to not provide financial support to folks that are really struggling in the labor market. In addition, it takes some spending power out of the economy.”
In a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning, Boehner was asked about the ongoing effort to renew the extension. The questioner pointed out that the extension had been renewed multiple times in the past, and asked why this time is different.
Boehner did not answer the question, but asserted that there are still not enough jobs available for Americans who want to work.
“The administration wants to crow about this lower unemployment rate. And the fact is, the unemployment rate is coming down. But the American people are still asking the question, where are the jobs?” Boehner said.
However, Boehner offered little support for an extension of jobless benefits, at least the version currently being debated in the Senate. Rather, he suggested, it’s time for the Senate to start passing jobs bills that have already cleared the House.
“I made clear that if we were going to consider extending emergency unemployment – let’s all be clear here, we’re not talking about regular unemployment insurance which will go up to six months for anyone that’s employed; these are benefits beyond six months – I made clear that if we’re going to consider dealing with emergency unemployment, we’ve got to do something about creating better jobs in America, higher wages in America,” Boehner said. “The Senate is sitting on dozens of bills that we sent over there. I think it’s time for the Senate to work with the House to help get the economy moving again. That’s the real issue.”
Asked if he has any concerns about people “with no money in their pockets” while Congress argues over an extension of benefits, Boehner replied, “What those people want is a chance at a good job, and I’m trying to get them one.”
The fact that the Speaker acknowledged that there are still not enough jobs for people who want them at the same time that he appeared unconcerned with passing a bill to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed left advocates for the unemployed frustrated.
“He just puts up one roadblock after another and ignores the reality of 2 million people and their families struggling to put food on the table without the aid of emergency unemployment benefits,” said Maurice Emsellem, director of the Access and Opportunity program at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s about as callous as you can get. Now is the time to do it.”
Opinions are split on the chances of getting a bill extending benefits to the president’s desk before the House goes into recess. One person closely involved in discussions on Capitol Hill said that the chances appeared poor for getting anything done before the recess, and fretted that whatever momentum the issue has might be lost by the end of April.
However, senior Democratic staff said that they are still holding out hope of success on the theory that once the Senate passes a bill and sends it to the House, it will become easier to put pressure on individual Republican House members – many of whom represent districts with higher-than-average unemployment -- to take a position on the bill.
A complicating factor is that another major bill appears to have priority in Congress right now. The so-called “Doc fix” is a perennial piece of must-pass legislation that prevents a dramatic cut in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. A series of temporary fixes have allowed the government to avoid implementing the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate formula, approved in the 1990s, which would reduce payments. The most recent temporary fix expires on Monday, and both Houses of Congress are pushing to renew it.
Late Wednesday, the two parties were reported to have agreed in principle on another temporary fix. Whether this is good news or bad news for the unemployment insurance effort remains to be seen. The bill will have to clear the Senate, and has the potential to eat up valuable legislative time unless Majority Leader Reid can get the fractious body’s unanimous consent to move forward.
Some backers of the unemployment insurance extension had hoped to attach that measure to the must-pass Doc fix, but as of Wednesday evening, that idea appeared to be off the table.
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