Democratic Pushback on Unemployment Insurance Mounts
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The Fiscal Times
May 1, 2014

When Congress failed to pass a bill renewing the federal extension of unemployment insurance before its two-week recess last month, there was a general sense among many supporters of the proposal that it was effectively dead. Democratic leaders in Congress, and the White House, the expectation was, would move on to other priorities rather than continue pounding their heads against a brick wall of House Republican resistance.

Democrats, though, apparently returned to Washington with a will to continue the fight.

Related: A Light Flickers to Extend Unemployment Insurance

The issue at hand is a federal program that supplements state-level unemployment benefits after they expire. State benefits typically run out after about 26 weeks. However, during times of extended high unemployment, Congress has typically authorized a federally funded extension. At one point during the Great Recession, benefits extended to 99 weeks, though they were eventually cut back to 72 weeks.

In December, Congress failed to renew the extension of federal benefits, meaning that someone who lost a job in June of last year saw their benefits cut off after six months, while a neighbor who lost a job in January of 2013 benefited from a full year of unemployment benefits.

House Democratic leadership can’t call hearings in regular congressional committees, but they are planning a public hearing in their own Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday that will highlight the plight of the long-term unemployed.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has consistently said that he is willing to consider renewing the extension if there is a proposal that includes job creation measures and is paid for. However, he has refused to allow bills that appear to meet those criteria to advance in the House. He has also declared a Senate bill passed with bipartisan support “unworkable.”

This week, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, went after Boehner for his unwillingness to allow the House to vote on the Senate bill. 

Related: Reid ties GOP Filibuster of Minimum Wage Bill to Koch Brothers

Levin publicly released a letter that he sent to Boehner on Monday containing dozens of comments from the long-term jobless asking that the federal extension be renewed. Additionally, Levin published an published an opinion piece on the Huffington Post entitled “Mr. Speaker, Don’t Turn Your Back on the Jobless.”

And finally, President Obama made a public plea for a renewal of the federal extension of unemployment insurance on Wednesday afternoon, after Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 from the current $7.25.

Obama, after urging supporters to contact their Senators and Representatives on the minimum wage issue, added, “While you’re at it, tell them to restore unemployment insurance for Americans who are trying to support their families right now while they look for work. Extending this lifeline of unemployment insurance would actually strengthen the economy. It will create jobs, and give millions of American across the country a sense of hope.”

House Republicans, most notably Speaker John Boehner, have been reluctant to support the extension, and without at least a willingness on the part of Republican leadership to bring a bill to the floor for a vote, the measure has no chance of passage. But Democrats promise to keep the pressure on. 

Related: New Obamacare Fix Is Bad News for Democrats 

A senior aide to one House Democrat said, “We’re not going to go away or give in on this issue. By the end of the year there will be 4.9 million people cut off from unemployment insurance. Add in their children and other family members, and you are talking about many millions of people who are affected.”

Advocacy groups, such as the National Employment Law Project, which will be bringing jobless workers to testify before House Democrats next week, were, not surprisingly, happy with the Democrats’ position.

“We are very pleased that the house leadership will be bringing the voices of real people to DC to tell their plight,” said Judy Conti, NELP’s federal advocacy coordinator. 

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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.