With the passage of a compromise budget earlier this year and hopeful talk about limited legislative cooperation, the caricature of the Congressional Republicans as the “Party of No” was starting to fade slightly in Washington. Until Thursday, that is.
Within the space of a few hours, Republicans put roadblocks in front of a pair of popular legislative proposals that supporters insist would create jobs, increase economic growth and alleviate a lot of human suffering.
In a press conference Thursday morning, House Majority Leader John Boehner dashed the expectations of those hoping an immigration reform bill could make its way through the divided Congress. A hard core of conservatives in Boehner’s conference would oppose almost any immigration reform acceptable to Senate Democrats, but Boehner blamed the problem on a lack of “trust” in President Obama.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws, and it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes,” he told reporters.
The announcement disappointed immigration reform advocates, but was just as likely to annoy economists. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that comprehensive immigration reform would generate economic growth and shrink the federal deficit.
Later on Thursday, in a vote that ended at 2:45 p.m., Republicans blocked the Senate from moving forward on a three-month extension of federal unemployment benefits. An extension of federal unemployment benefits expired December 28, and approximately 1.7 million long-term unemployed people who would have been eligible for the payments are now cut off.
Democrats in the Senate had bowed to Republican demands that the extension be limited to three months and that it be paid for by reducing other spending. They also added a Republican provision barring millionaires from collecting the payments. Even if the Senate had cleared the procedural hurdle and approved the extension, getting the bill through the Republican-controlled House was expected to be a challenge.
As with the announcement dimming the hopes for immigration reform, the Republican move to block unemployment insurance extension will not just upset the families who rely on those payments, but will bother economists as well. In a hearing on the country’s long-term budget outlook Wednesday, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf told the House Budget Committee that the extension of benefits would help the economy and create an estimated 200,000 jobs.
In the same press conference in which he said immigration reform was unlikely to pass the House, Speaker Boehner said that he was having trouble getting another major legislative priority, raising the federal debt limit, through his fractious caucus. A temporary suspension of the debt limit expires Friday, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said that accounting maneuvers to prevent a government default would be exhausted by the end of the month.
Boehner insisted that his members do not want a default, but Republicans have struggled to find agreement on what to demand from the president in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. So even when they aren’t the “Party of No,” Republicans are having difficulty in getting to “Yes.”
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