It’s not every day that a vote in the U.S. Congress aggravates both the business community and advocates for the long-term unemployed, but the Senate managed such a feat on Thursday.
Republicans filibustered a procedural action meant to move forward on a two-year extension of dozens of tax breaks, which could also have served as a vehicle for a renewal of federal unemployment insurance.
In a complicated procedural move, Senate Democrats tried to take up a bill already passed by the House of Representatives that would create tax incentives to encourage businesses to hire more veterans.
Democrats had planned to amend the bill by adding a provision renewing a set of about 60 so-called “tax extenders” – tax cuts given that name because they are technically temporary, but tend to be renewed by congress on a regular basis. (The maneuver was necessary because the Constitution requires that all tax bills originate in the House of Representatives.)
The tax cuts, a large proportion of which are business friendly, include a tax credit for research and development, small businesses, and other business-friendly measures. They also include cuts for renewable energy and schoolteachers, which are important to Democrats.
Advocates for the long-term unemployed were hopeful, because Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) had indicated that he planned to offer an amendment to the bill that would renew a federal extension of unemployment insurance for a full year, retroactive to December.
Reed’s measure was meant to help the roughly 2.8 million Americans who have exhausted their states’ unemployment benefit programs since a federal extension ran out at the end of 2013. Historically, during times of high unemployment, the federal government has offered an extension of state-level benefits, which typically expire after about six months.
Through the Great Recession, as in recessions before it, federal extension was in place for several years. At one point it extended unemployment insurance to 99 weeks before being pared back to 73.
At the end of last year, Republicans blocked a renewal of the extension, and when Congress returned, they continued to resist. After months of wrangling, and several Republican filibusters, the Senate in April eventually pushed out a bipartisan five-month retroactive extension, which has gone precisely nowhere in the House of Representatives.
House Speaker John Boehner has criticized the proposal for not doing enough to create jobs. At the same time, Boehner has refused to bring an alternative to the floor, and has refused a debate on the Senate bill, during which it might be amended to alleviate Boehner’s concerns.
Sen. Reed, however, never got the chance to offer his amendment, because Republicans refused to allow the vote on the original House bill to proceed. The GOP’s reasoning for refusing to allow the bill to proceed was that Majority Leader Reid refused to allow them to offer amendments to the legislation.
Reid had offered to allow the top Senators on the Finance Committee, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, to organize the offering of amendments if the Senate voted to end debate and proceed, but GOP senators refused.
Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traded barbs on the Senate floor prior to vote, which received a majority vote of 53-40, but failed to pass the 60-vote threshold to break the Republican filibuster.
Reid called his Republican counterpart the “guardian of gridlock,” while McConnell accused Reid of putting a “gag order on the American people.”
Advocates for the long-term unemployed were disappointed at the outcome. Because the tax extenders enjoy broad support from both parties, they had been hopeful that attaching the Reed amendment might bring some sort of renewal of the federal extension closer to reality.
Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project said, “We’re grateful that they are continuing to keep the issue alive.”
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