A Light Flickers to Extend Unemployment Insurance
Policy + Politics

A Light Flickers to Extend Unemployment Insurance

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

House Democrats, frustrated by the unwillingness of Republican leadership to consider measures to restore federal unemployment benefits, will resort to shaming their GOP colleagues next week by making the long-term unemployed more than a vague statistic.

Democrats will use a meeting of their Steering and Policy Committee – not a typical legislative committee of the House of Representatives, but one generally in charge of distributing committee assignments to Democrats - to highlight the plight of people who have been out of work for six months or longer. Since December of last year, 2.8 million workers who would otherwise have been eligible for extended benefits lost them after lawmakers allowed an extension of the program to expire.

Related: Unemployment Insurance Bill’s Fate Rests with Boehner

The hearing, which had not yet been announced publicly as of Tuesday evening, will take place the afternoon of May 6. Evangeline George, press secretary for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), said the hearing “will feature Americans sharing their stories.”

The issue at hand is a federal action that has been seen in recent years as routine. The individual states run their own unemployment insurance programs, which typically provide the jobless with about 26 weeks of benefits. However, in periods of high unemployment, the federal government has ordinarily stepped in with a program extending state-level programs. During the Great Recession, benefits were extended, at one point, as far as 99 weeks.

Despite the fact that the current long-term unemployment rate is a full percentage point higher than it has ever been when the federal government allowed the extension to expire, Congress allowed the program to die in December. Efforts to revive it in the New Year were blocked for months by Republican filibusters in the Senate.

The Senate eventually passed a bipartisan five-month extension of the program but has been unable to persuade House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to bring the proposal to the House floor for a vote. Boehner has consistently said that the Senate bill does not meet his requirement that any unemployment insurance extension bill also contain measures to increase employment.

Related: Grassroots Action Key to Unemployment Fight

Nevada Senator Dean Heller, a Republican who was one of the primary sponsors of the Senate bill, had a personal conversation with Boehner on Tuesday that apparently did little to convince the Speaker to move forward.

"Senator Heller had a good conversation with Speaker Boehner today,” said Heller spokesperson Chandler Smith. “He encouraged the Speaker to allow the unemployment insurance extension legislation to move forward in the House, making the case that this bill is not just important for Nevada, but for the entire country. Speaker Boehner relayed the same message that he gave to the White House. Senator Heller will continue to work to get something done."

Boehner’s spokesperson was less diplomatic. Spokesman Michael Steel said, “The Speaker spoke by telephone with Sen. Heller today, and told him the same thing he has told the White House since before Christmas: We’re willing to look at a plan that is paid-for and includes something to help create jobs. Unfortunately, [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] ruled out adding jobs provisions.”

Organizations supporting the unemployment insurance extension argue that the bill itself is a job creation program because it would pump some $9 billion into the U.S. economy.

“The people who get this money are going to spend it immediately,” said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project. “It’s not going to be saved; it’s not going to be offshored. That money will create jobs.”

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