Renewed Hope for Long-Term Unemployment Extension
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The Fiscal Times
June 24, 2014

Two lawmakers who forged a rare bipartisan Senate deal earlier this year to try to help the long-term unemployed are back at it again, this time lowering the cost of their aid package in the hope of winning over enough House conservatives. 

Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced legislation Tuesday morning that would extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed for up to five months.

Related: Unemployment Insurance Gets a Soap Box Hearing

Here’s the catch, though: The benefits will not be retroactive. With the expiration of benefits in December 2013, the number of Americans who have not gotten a federal extension of state unemployment assistance rose from 1.3 million to more than 3 million. Today, more than a third of the almost 10 million Americans without a job are considered long-term unemployed.

The Senate in March passed a five-month bipartisan extension, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it to the floor for a vote. Some conservatives have argued that it is bad policy to continue unemployment benefits indefinitely. Others, including Boehner, have said they would consider another extension only if it is paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget, or if paired with new tax incentives and other job-creating measures.

Supporters of the bill claimed that it satisfied the Speaker’s requirements, but Boehner did not budge.  In a statement that month, he said in part, “We have always said that we’re willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Washington Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally responsible, and gets to the root of the problem by helping to create more private-sector jobs. There is no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by Leader Reid meets that test.”

At the end of May, when the extension in the Senate-passed bill was scheduled to expire, the bill was effectively dead.

In a recent phone conversation with key ally and soon-to-be House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Heller received some unwelcome news: Boehner and McCarthy are in agreement. “His message was very clear. It was very similar to Boehner's—very similar to Boehner’s—and that is, ‘We want job provisions,’” Heller said, adding that conversations are ongoing.

Related: How Growing Partisanship Is Splitting the U.S. in Two

“House Speaker Boehner’s obstruction ran out the clock on the earlier Senate-passed bill, causing so much time to pass without renewal of federal benefits that full retro activity has tragically been lost in the latest proposal,” said Mitchell Hirsch of the National Employment Law Project, a left-leaning advocacy group, in an interview on Tuesday. “Still, Senators Reed and Heller are at least demonstrating that unlike too many of their colleagues, they aren’t willing to simply abandon the long-term unemployed.” The new proposal would allow Americans who are still actively looking for a job to start receiving regular benefits again. The earlier version had been “retroactive,” allowing recipients to collect a lump sum payment for the time between the extension’s expiration in December and the bill’s passage.

“The new Reed-Heller bill provides prospective emergency benefits and allows eligible job seekers who were cut off on December 28 to pick up where they left off in the UI claims process,” the sponsors said in a statement on Tuesday. “Similar to the Senate-passed Reed-Heller bill, this proposal uses a combination of offsets that includes extending ‘pension smoothing’ provisions from the 2012 highway bill,  which were set to phase out this year, and extending customs user fees through 2024.” 

The bipartisan bill is a watered down version of the earlier bill, an attempt to make the legislation more palatable to House Republicans. So far, the prognosis is not good. An aide to Boehner told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that the Speaker had not changed his position.

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Reilly Dowd is a senior writer at The Fiscal Times. Based in Washington, D.C., she covers national politics, economic policy, technology, and elections. She has previously worked at Al Jazeera America, SnagFilms, ABC News, CNN and in the Obama White House.