3 Issues on the Agenda When Congress Meets
Policy + Politics

3 Issues on the Agenda When Congress Meets

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Senate is expected to vote today to provide extended unemployment benefits for 1.3 million out-of-work Americans whose insurance expired last week.

Extending the benefits beyond the six months already received was not included in the bipartisan budget deal Congress passed before Congress left Washington for winter break. Democrats in both chambers have vowed to take up the issue when they return even though they face an uphill battle against House Republicans. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters Friday that restoring the benefits wouldn’t be on the House’s January agenda.

Related: The Hidden Cost of Unemployment Benefits

If they aren’t extended, another 1.9 million people are projected to lose their unemployment insurance in the first half of 2014.

The White House and congressional Democrats will ramp up pressure on the GOP this week. President Obama is scheduled to meet with jobless Americans on Tuesday to tout the importance of the benefits. Similarly, House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee will continue highlighting a report they released Friday saying the expiration of the benefits has already taken more than $400 million out of the economy.

The push to extend the benefits comes as liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill inspired by Bill de Blasio's election as mayor of New York City are pressing for more action on measures to help the middle class, including extending unemployment insurance, repealing cuts to food stamps, raising the minimum wage and repealing cost of living assistance for military families.

Here are the options on the table:

Unemployment Benefits: Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced a bipartisan bill that offers a three-month extension to the federal benefits program, which applies to people who are unemployed for longer than six months, by three months. Reed’s bill would extend the benefits through March and apply retroactively to reimburse those who lost benefits for last weeks. The temporary fix is intended to give lawmakers more time to work out a more permanent solution for the long-term unemployed.

Military Cuts: Facing tough pressure from veterans groups, lawmakers in both parties have vowed to overturn cuts to military pensions that Congress approved as part of a bipartisan budget deal before leaving for the holiday recess. In the deal, the Cost of Living Adjustment or COLA for military retirees who are still working or eligible to work would be reduced by 1 percent until they reach the age of 62. The reduction, which would begin in 2015 and be phased in over three years, is expected to save the government about $6 billion over the next decade. However, a handful of lawmakers in districts with large military constituencies have offered up alternative ways to achieve similar savings in an effort to spare veterans from the cuts. 

Related: Military Benefits Must Be Cut to Make the Math Work

One measure, introduced by Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), would restore the annual cost-of-living adjustment for some 800,000 troops who retire in their early 40s, then get civilian jobs outside of the military. Their bill replaces saving from the cuts by asking the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on fraudulent claims for child tax credits. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) also introduced a bill that would restore full COLA benefits and find savings by allowing the U.S. Postal Service to switch to a five-day mail delivery service.

Across the Capitol Building in the Upper Chamber, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) has proposed restoring the COLA and finding the $6 billion in savings from eliminating a tax loophole for offshore corporations. Shaheen’s bill already has 15 sponsors.

Food Stamps: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which 47 million or 14 percent of Americans rely on to put food on the table, was slashed in November when stimulus spending approved by Congress expired. The cuts nationwide are estimated to be about $5 billion for 2014. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, this means a family of three will lose $29 a month — or a total of $319 for November 2013 through September 2014. SNAP currently costs $75 billion a year. Both the Senate and House are cobbling together a resolution. A House passed bill cuts food stamps by $40 billion over the next decade, forcing about 2 million people off the program. Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved a bill that cuts the program by $4 billion over the next 10 years.

Though nothing in the bipartisan budget deal addressed SNAP, negotiators working on the farm bill are hoping to strike a compromise on what cuts should be made to the food stamp program, which will likely be discussed early this spring.

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