Jobless benefits: The GOP’s search for an exit
By: Burgess Everett
February 19, 2014 05:03 AM EST
A group of Senate Republicans is meeting quietly to plot an unusual strategy: passing a top Democratic priority.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to press the GOP on unemployment benefits — forcing them to keep taking votes on a bill to extend aid to the long-term unemployed. But Republicans have rejected it twice since the program expired on Dec. 28.
Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana, Rob Portman of Ohio, Dean Heller of Nevada and Susan Collins of Maine want a deal that could bring the Democratic drumbeat to an end. They gathered last week to plan how to revisit the cause when the Senate returns next week, hoping they can get Democrats to agree to their policy changes and finally move the red-hot issue off the Senate’s plate.
“We’re still working on the same thing, which is solving the problem,” Portman said in an interview Tuesday. “I continue to believe that we can solve this if Democrats want to.”
The political maneuvering is a reminder that voting down money for a government program might be good politics for hard-liners running on slashing deficits and spending, but for centrists, especially those from states where jobless rates remain high, looking unsympathetic to the long-term unemployed is a big risk. That explains the nuanced positions of senators like Coats, who has surprised Democrats by engaging in the unemployment debate last week.
“The substance is there for an agreement,” Coats said optimistically, adding that his constituents have big questions about how long these benefits should be extended, which drives his view on the issue.
“There’s a question mark in terms of how much longer can we keep doing this? Or should we keep doing this?” Coats said. “If we do extend it, they want to see reforms.”
Before the Senate broke for recess last week, the Republican group began floating a proposal to Democrats that would retroactively revive benefits for 90 days, paying for it by cracking down on people receiving both unemployment and disability benefits and changing federal pension programs. In addition, the GOP wants to at least vote on amendments to reform the program, such as a ban on people receiving benefits once they’ve received “suitable” offers of work and job training programs.
Of course, just because lawmakers are talking about a deal doesn’t mean that an agreement is imminent. Negotiators were close to a pact at several points this year only to see the package collapse, and Democrats are unlikely to simply accept Republican legislation on the issue and call it a day. Democrats face a delicate political calculus as well as they weigh the benefits of moving the legislation against the value of using GOP obstruction as a campaign talking point.
The political threat is especially acute for Republicans like Portman and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who will both face voters in 2016 very different from the 2010 tea party wave that thrust them into office. In Ohio, about a third of the state’s unemployed have been out of work for more than half a year, according to Pew. In Illinois, the long-term unemployed make up 41 percent of the state’s jobless.
Democrats quickly seized on Portman and Kirk’s votes opposing a three-month extension in February, suggesting the lawmakers could face the wrath of voters. In a recent survey from the liberal Public Policy Polling, 51 percent said they were less likely to support Portman’s reelection because of his vote; 40 percent said the same for Kirk.
Portman, who has heard concerns from Ohio conservatives, dismissed the surveys as “bogus,” automated push polls that align with Democrats’ political maneuverings on unemployment insurance nationally.
“It shows you about the politics. They didn’t do this in Indiana with Dan Coats, they only chose to do it with a purple state where they can try to make some political hay out of it,” Portman said.
If he’s concerned, Kirk isn’t showing it. In an interview, he said his constituents understand he voted against the benefits because he felt Democrats were relying on “gimmicks” to pay for the $6 billion legislation.
“Back in the heartland, I would say either the debt is going up or not,” he said. “Either the trend line for the United States is good or not. I would say that’s the particular difficulty for Washington that people back home would ask you [about].”
An effort earlier this month to reinstate the benefits fell short by just one vote. That push revealed unusual divisions among Republicans. Hailing from above-average unemployment states, Kirk, Coats and Portman voted against the extension, while a trio of lawmakers from lower unemployment states — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Collins — all voted for the bill, which used pension changes as a pay-for.
Ayotte said Republicans aren’t blaming one another for the stalled bill.
“I don’t blame my colleagues for voting against, the way that they did. Because people like Dan Coats and Rob Portman have legitimate amendments and they were shut down by Harry Reid,” she said. “So you can understand why they felt they just couldn’t support it.”
Kirk predicts the Senate will approve restoring the benefits retroactively by including language written by Portman that would prohibit withdrawal of both unemployment and disability benefits. Portman said he hopes the Senate returns to the issue as soon as it reconvenes on Monday.
For all the talking, building a package that can pass the Senate is fraught with difficulty. There may be support for policy changes, such as limiting the ability of someone to receive disability and unemployment benefits, which President Barack Obama has blessed. But the hard part will be paying for an extension — and if benefits are renewed only through March, the issue will boomerang back to Congress within weeks.
Democrats had resisted paying for a package, but have acquiesced to Republican demands it be paid for. But today there aren’t many easy provisions to tap for money. One of the most promising revenue sources, a one-year extension of sequester savings, instead went to cover the cost of a recently passed bill to reverse changes to military benefits. Republicans had been hoping to attach the UI extension to that popular bill, but they ultimately fell short.
Given that the unemployment push has now twice stalled in the Senate, Democratic leaders are weighing whether to turn their attention to raising the federal minimum wage before returning to jobless benefits. Despite significant opposition to raising the minimum wage, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he thinks that will be an easier task than unemployment because it doesn’t require a pay-for.
“I hope we pass both, but I think minimum wage is a little easier to pass,” said Schumer, who has built his party’s strategy of voting on wedge issues like UI, the minimum wage and paycheck fairness.
In the meantime, Democrats are talking tough. At the beginning of the year, Reid issued frequent pleas for Republican support for unemployment legislation. By last week, he was bluntly previewing the type of rhetoric Democrats will deploy as the midterm elections approach in November.
“They have no intention of passing unemployment benefits for the short term or long term because they don’t care,” Reid said. “It’s obvious from their actions.”