The Senate voted 59 to 38 to extend benefits for the long-term
unemployed. But House Republican leaders say the measure addresses
only symptoms of joblessness, not the cause.
By Francine Kiefer
WASHINGTON — More than three months after emergency federal jobless
benefits expired, the U.S. Senate Monday approved a five-month
extension. But people who need those funds to fill their gas tank or
pay their rent while they look for work are not out of the woods yet.
The bipartisan bill, which passed 59 to 38 with the support of six
Republicans, faces stiff opposition from Republican gatekeepers in the
Why does the House GOP dislike this idea, which a majority of
Americans support? Supporters say the federal payments of about $300
per week to individuals are desperately needed to help the long-term
unemployed — nearly 3 million people, many of them middle-aged heads
of household caring for children and parents. The payments would be
retroactive and go through May.
Moreover, Senate Democrats, in a tough negotiation with five Senate
Republicans, already met several GOP objections in their bill: They
found offsets to pay for the extension’s $9.7 billion price tag and
they addressed some concerns about waste and job training. The risk
for Republicans is that opposing the Senate’s bill simply reinforces
their image as uncaring — an image that Democrats aim to exploit in an
election year when control of the Senate hangs in the balance.
Three primary objections nevertheless stand in the way of the Senate’s
measure, although an effort by a handful of Republican representatives
could yet sway the House leadership:
A bandaid, not a cure
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio complains, as do many
Republicans in both houses, that the extension only addresses the
symptoms of joblessness, not its cause. Show me the measures to create
jobs, Boehner said, and maybe I’ll look at something from the Senate
on unemployment insurance.
Senate Republicans tried to add job enhancers — things like approving
the Keystone XL pipeline, ending the Obama administration’s carbon
regulations that hurt the coal industry, and boosting the definition
of the work week in the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” from 30
hours to 40 hours to remove the incentive for employers to cut hours.
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said no. He feared
that adding such controversial measures would blow up the carefully
The bill’s supporters argue that jobless benefits not only help
families in desperate need, they save other jobs in the economy
because of spending by benefit recipients. For every $1 spent on
jobless benefits, $1.55 is returned to the economy from such spending,
according to one estimate.
Difficult for states to implement
Boehner said the extension is unworkable in the states. He cites a
March 19 letter written by the president of the National Association
of State Workforce Agencies to the Senate leadership.
A big problem, according to the letter, is the time that has lapsed
since the benefits expired on Dec. 28. Having to go back and confirm,
for instance, that individuals were looking for work every week since
the end of December, would be “nearly impossible” in many cases, the
Supporters argue that states have been able to handle previous lapses
in extensions, which began with the economic crisis of 2008 and were
meant to help the jobless after their state benefits ran out. But the
states’ adroitness was due to clear signals from both the House and
Senate that Congress intended to pass extension legislation. States
kept collecting eligibility information while they waited for the law
to be enacted. This time, it was never clear that Congress would
extend the benefits, so states stopped collecting the information.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez — a former state
official responsible for carrying out unemployment insurance — has
since written the Senate leadership to say the Labor department can
help the states. He said he is “confident there are workable
solutions” to all of their concerns.
Time to end this thing
Many Republicans simply believe it’s a mistake to extend benefits yet
again. Since the Great Recession of 2008, Congress has extended or
expanded emergency unemployment insurance 12 times. A 13th is simply
one time too many in an economy that is growing, and where the jobless
rate has been generally coming down, Republicans argue. They don’t
want a temporary safety net to become a permanent hammock.
But supporters of the Senate bill say the Great Recession was like
none other. And, they point out that federal unemployment insurance is
issued according to state need — the duration of benefits decreases as
states recover. It’s no coincidence that the Senate bill’s two
sponsors — Sens. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island and Dean Heller (R) of
Nevada — represent states at or near the top of the unemployment
chart, 9 percent for Rhode Island and 8.5 percent for Nevada. The
national average is 6.7 percent.
“These are real American families trying to make ends meet,” Sen.
Heller said last week, arguing for passage on the Senate floor. “They
are people who want to get back to work, want to be self-sufficient,
want to provide for their families.” Unemployment insurance “is a
critical safety net… especially during periods of high unemployment,
such as we have now,” said the Nevada senator, whose state had the
unenviable position of holding the nation’s highest jobless rate for
nearly five years.
Now that the Senate has approved the bill, Heller said he wants to
meet with Boehner just as soon as he can and express openness to
working with the House. He will reassure the speaker that the plan can
be implemented, and he hopes that fellow Republican Sen. Rob Portman
of Ohio, one of the bill’s dealmakers, can exercise some influence
over the speaker, who is also from the Buckeye state.
The six GOP senators who voted with Democrats for the bill include the
five negotiators: Sens. Heller, Portman, Susan Collins of Maine, Mark
Kirk of Illinois, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, along with Sen. Kelly
Ayotte of New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, seven House Republicans have sent a letter to Boehner,
urging that the GOP leadership immediately move the Senate bill or an
alternative. The members come from swing districts or ones with high
jobless rates in New York, New Jersey, and Nevada. One option might be
to attach a measure that has appealed to both Democrats and
Republicans in the past, such as repealing a tax on medical devices
that is part of the Affordable Care Act. Another idea is to drop the
retroactive aspect and simply extend jobless benefits going forward
for five months.
But that assumes House Republicans want to go along with an extension.
Many object in principal to more long-term jobless benefits. Their
gerrymandered districts presumably protect them from any backlash they
may encounter from constituents.