The Obama administration has not given up its efforts to renew a federal extension of unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said Monday. That statement probably comes as news to many of the long-term jobless.
In December of last year, Congress allowed the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program to expire, a move that has so far kept more than three million Americans from receiving the benefits their fellow citizens in similar circumstances got just one year ago.
The program, which used federal dollars to extend unemployment benefits beyond the roughly 26 weeks offered by most states, was supposed to be renewed in January. Efforts to do so were delayed by Senate Republicans for months until a bipartisan majority led by Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI), Dean Heller (R-NV) and Susan Collins (R-ME) finally pushed it through.
It was ultimately blocked by House Republicans, however, who refused to vote on extensions unless they were paid for. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) maintained he would not support any bill that didn’t include tax incentives and other measures to create jobs and help the economy.
At first the Obama administration was adamant about the need to restore the program. The president included a jab at Congress’s decision to let it expire in his State of the Union address, and in the weeks that followed he often mentioned the need to renew it.
But after it became clear that Boehner would not bring an unemployment insurance bill to the floor, the administration vanished from the public discussion. That’s what made Secretary Perez’s statement at the National Press Club on Monday surprising.
Perez, believed by many to be on the short list of candidates to replace resigning Attorney General Eric Holder, gave a speech replete with reasons why Republicans in Congress would fight his nomination tooth and nail. He called for greater union membership and the creation of European-style work councils. He glorified the workers at the New England Supermarket chain Market Basket, who launched a crippling strike because they didn’t approve of their new CEO. He called for an increase in the minimum wage and better pay for workers generally. (“The pie is getting bigger. American workers helped bake the pie. But they aren’t getting a bigger slice.”)
What he didn’t talk about in his prepared remarks was unemployment insurance. It was only when he was asked by Club President Myron Belkind whether the EUC program was still a priority that Perez said, “I haven’t given up the fight and I applaud the efforts of [Senator] Jack Reed, Senator Heller from Nevada, and Senator Collins from Maine. It’s been a bipartisan effort in the Senate…. And never in the history of our nation has Congress, with long-term unemployment rates as high as they were last year, failed to extend emergency unemployment compensation. Never, that is, until last December.”
He added, “I sure wish [Speaker] Boehner would do what I do, and that’s meet with the long-term unemployed … because when you understand the human face of this, you understand that we need to extend these benefits, because it’s a lifeline for folks, it’s not a lifestyle.”
Tellingly, Perez gave no indication that he sees a clear path to renewal of the program. While the rate of long-term unemployment is still high, the monthly jobs report from Perez’s own Department have been almost uniformly good this year – something that reduces the political salience of the issue and the political rewards for any member of Congress who takes it on.
In the end, despite Perez’s claim, renewal of the unemployment insurance extension at this point seems about as likely as a Republican Senate approving the nomination of Tom Perez as attorney general.
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