Unemployment Insurance Bill’s Fate Rests with Boehner
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The Fiscal Times
April 8, 2014

The Senate debate over whether or not to renew unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless came to its foregone conclusion last night.  But for political gamesmanship, the bipartisan vote of 59 to 38 could easily have been taken the week before last.

The delay did nothing to change the result of the vote, but much to reduce the chances of the Senate bill, or a different piece of legislation extending unemployment benefits passing the House before a two-week recess scheduled to begin at the end of business on Thursday.

Related: Unemployment Shows We’re Getting Worse at Economic Recovery

The bill, cosponsored by two Senators from states with some of the nation’s highest levels of unemployment, Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV), would renew for five months a federal extension of state unemployment benefits, which usually run out after 26 weeks. The bill would be retroactive to when benefits expired in late December.

Democrats have been working to pass the bill with the largest possible bipartisan majority. The Senate vote included yea votes from six Republicans. Two Democrats, Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) did not cast votes. The only Republican not voting was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. All the Nay votes came from the GOP.

It’s unclear, though, whether Republican support will helped the bill’s prospects. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), has not brought even one House bill related to unemployment insurance to the floor. In an email Monday night, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel indicated that the Senate bill is unlikely to get a hearing there.

 

“As the Speaker said months ago, we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs – but, last week, Senate Democratic Leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all.  The American people are still asking, ‘where are the jobs?’ and House Republicans are focused on our jobs agenda for families and small businesses.”

Steel was apparently citing Democrats’ refusal last week to accept a package of amendments, being pushed by South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, to the already bi-partisan unemployment insurance bill. Thune’s proposal included a veritable laundry list of Republican priorities, from approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline to outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Related: Unemployment Insurance Bill Hits Political Snags

A group of House Republicans on Monday sent a letter to Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) requesting that he allow a vote on either the Senate bill or other legislation to help the long-term unemployed.

The signatories, Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Jon Runyan (R-NJ), Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chris Gibson (R-NY), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Peter King (R-NY) and Joe Heck (R-NV), wrote, “As you know, emergency unemployment benefits expired in December, immediately leaving approximately 1.3 million Americans without benefits.  Since then, many more people have lost benefits each week, bringing the number of long-term unemployed Americans without government assistance to greater than two million.

“Today, a bi-partisan deal was passed in the U.S. Senate that would retroactively restore unemployment benefits and extend these benefits for 5 months.  As many Americans continue to struggle without benefits, we respectfully request that the House immediately consider this bill or a similar measure to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans.  

Steel, did not reply to a request for comment on the letter from Republican lawmakers. Likewise, he did not reply when asked whether Boehner would advance unemployment insurance extension proposals other than the Senate-passed bill.

Related: The House Republican Fighting for Unemployment Insurance

While the letter represents at least a minor crack in Republican unity on the unemployment insurance issue, it is far from clear that it will be enough to bring related legislation to the floor of the House. Even Republican-backed legislation that appears to meet Speaker Boehner’s requirement that any renewal of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program must be paid for and include job-creation programs has failed to get floor time.

The vote “provides at least a ray of hope for the 2.3 million unemployed jobseekers who have suffered the loss of this critical aid,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. 

“Today marks the 100th day since the federal benefits lapsed,” Owens said. “Any further delay would be unconscionable and cruel. With yet another Congressional recess scheduled at the end of this week, House Speaker John Boehner must bring the Senate bill to the floor, and the House must act to approve it immediately.”

Republicans opposed to an extension of benefits point out that so-called “emergency” benefits have now been in place for five years, which many suggest begins to make them feel more like permanent benefits. Democrats, on the other hand, concede that the benefits have been in place for a long time, but cite the slow recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s as the reason. The renewal of emergency benefits has, until now, never been denied with long-term unemployment rates above 1.3 percent of the labor force. They are currently nearly twice that, at 2.5 percent.

Related: The Jobs Market Reaches a Meaningless Milestone

On Capitol Hill, Democrats have made it clear that they will not pass up the opportunity to bash Republicans for failing to extend benefits to well over two million Americans whose benefits expired under circumstances that, in the past, would have generated an immediate and bipartisan extension of benefits. 

House Democrats announced a public rally on Tuesday aimed at pressuring House Republican leadership to bring an unemployment insurance bill to the floor. 

“Unless the House takes action, another 72,000 Americans, on average, will lose this assistance each week,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a statement. “We must work together to prevent another week going by before emergency unemployment insurance is restored.”

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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.