House Democrats say that they will attempt to force a vote on an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits today through an unorthodox bit of legislative maneuvering. Known as a discharge petition, the process would enable them to ignore the wishes of the House leadership, and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in particular, by bringing a bill directly to the House floor.
It’s a calculated move by the minority party, which knows from the start that its effort will most likely fail. A discharge petition requires the signature of a majority of members of the House of Representatives, a number the Democrats can’t muster without enlisting 20 Republicans. And finding those votes is a tall order, given the potentially high political costs a Republican could incur by alienating Boehner and the House leadership.
Another signal that the Democrats’ move is more symbolic than practical is the relative lack of pressure being put on Republicans in advance of the petition’s filing. Senior Democratic staff have indicated that when the party’s leadership believes they are close to a vote on the unemployment insurance issue, they will begin blanketing the media in Republican House districts with data on the number of long-term unemployed constituents each member of the GOP represents, and the percentage of those who have already lost their benefits.
No such effort is apparent at the moment, but an aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday confirmed that the Democrats will move forward with the discharge petition, which, even should it fail, will direct attention to the millions of Americans whose jobless benefits expired on December 28 and the approximately 70,000 more who exhaust their eligibility every week.
Federal unemployment insurance benefits supplement state-level unemployment insurance programs, which typically expire after about 26 weeks. In the worst of the Great Recession, the federal benefits extended unemployment insurance to as long as 99 weeks, though they were later scaled back to 73. When benefits expired in December, lawmakers vowed to revisit the issue when they returned from their break in January. But months later, no bill has passed either House.
So far, the battle over the benefits extension has been centered in the Senate, where Republicans have repeatedly filibustered Democratic proposals to renew the program. At the moment, there are two competing bills in the Senate. One, proposed by the Democrats, would authorize a retroactive six-month extension paid for from the savings in a recently passed farm bill. A Republican proposal would extend benefits for five months, paying for it through a combination of revenue increases and spending cuts.
However, last week a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner said that neither bill being considered in the Senate is something that he would consider bringing to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. Boehner has said that for any unemployment insurance extension bill to reach the floor it would have to “be paid for” and include “measures to actually help create new jobs.”
So far in the process, Boehner has been content to criticize the Senate plans from afar, but has not submitted a proposal of his own that would extend jobless benefits.
Boehner’s reticence on the issue has helped insulate House Republicans from pressure on the issue, something Democrats appear poised to address with the discharge petition today.
“Failing to extend unemployment insurance, a critical lifeline for many of our families, is shortsighted and hurts our communities and businesses,” said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) in a statement on Tuesday.
Schneider, who will file the petition, continued, “If my colleagues want to vote against the extension, I respect their right to disagree; but failing to even allow a vote goes against the very progress that families and our constituents demand. Partisan politics must not be allowed to get in the way of doing the right thing for our middle class families.”
Of course, Schneider knows that it is unlikely that his discharge petition will lead to a vote at all. What it will do, however, is allow Democrats to claim that it is not only Senate Republicans but House Republicans as well who are blocking an extension of aid to the jobless during a slow economic recovery.
Given Boehner’s apparent lack of interest in addressing the issue until the Senate moves, and the Senate’s apparent inability to pass a bill, just how useful that bit of ammunition will be to the Democrats isn’t clear.
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