Senate prepares for jobless aid push
By: Burgess Everett
February 25, 2014 11:10 AM EST
The Senate is readying another go at restoring long-term unemployment benefits that expired nearly two months ago.
Negotiating lawmakers have now largely abandoned pursuit of a short-term extension, wary that any three-month unemployment insurance bill retroactive to Dec. 28 would have limited utility and fall back into the Senate’s lap in just a few weeks.
Given how arduous the fight has been to pass a jobless aid bill thus far, lawmakers are also concerned a 90-day extension could potentially thrust thousands back off the benefit rolls just a few days after benefits are restored rather than offer any sort of financial certainty to the unemployed.
“I’m certainly thinking of the possibility of a longer duration, because at this juncture … a three-month [bill] becomes almost a retroactive lump sum payment, not a continuation of the program,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chief Democrat sponsoring the effort. “Time has been evaporating over the last several weeks.”
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his leadership team are pitching a bill that would revive benefits for six months or so retroactive to December, using the new farm law’s billions in savings to pay for a half-year extension’s price tag of roughly $12 billion to $13 billion.
Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the GOP’s most vocal supporter of extending benefits, said that he’d spoken with Reed about the new proposal Sunday evening. And while Heller indicated that using future long-term farm bill savings isn’t his preferred way to pay for a UI extension, he wouldn’t rule it out.
“I’ll take a look at that pay-for,” Heller said in an interview on Tuesday. “My concern is that I’ve got 21,000 Nevadans that are off unemployment insurance right now, and I’m going to do what I can do to make sure that safety net works and is working well.”
Republicans involved in the negotiations are reluctant to agree to extending benefits through the November midterm elections as preferred by many Democrats, believing a lengthy jobless aid extension would remove opportunities for the GOP to pursue reforms in unemployment programs like cracking down on people who draw unemployment and disability benefits simultaneously.
“[What’s] united Republicans is a belief that you cannot have a yearlong extension, that the program should be paid for and that reforms are needed. And that we should be allowed to offer amendments,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has spoken privately with Reid this week about how to move forward on the bill.
Those talks appear to have been fruitful enough to convince Democrats to take another shot at the hot-button issue, with leaders mulling procedural votes on an unemployment insurance bill as soon as next week. Republicans have rejected previous proposals to extend the benefits for three months, falling just one GOP vote short of 60 votes in early February.
Reid indicated on Tuesday that he has not lost hope that the Senate can ultimately pass an unemployment bill.
“I’m going to try again, yes. I’ve had some good conversation with Republican senators, plural,” Reid told reporters. “The vast majority of them want it go away, but there are some Republican senators of good will who are trying to work to move forward on this.”
Even if deal-seeking Republicans and Democrats are able to settle on a base proposal to extend benefits, procedural and political concerns remain. Reid and other negotiating Democrats have largely dealt with a group of rank-and-file Republicans like Collins, Heller and Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Dan Coats of Indiana.
And in a blow to that small working group, Coats blasted out a statement Tuesday morning rebutting reports that he had been working closely with top Senate Democrats on a way forward.
“At no time over the past few weeks has the Democratic leadership reached out to Sen. Coats or his staff,” said spokesman Matt Lahr. “Sen. Coats remains hopeful that Democrats will work to find common ground and allow votes on amendments to improve and pay for this legislation.”
Left out thus far have been one-on-one negotiations between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that could help the Senate move to an unemployment bill more quickly and address lingering procedural disagreements over a dearth of Senate votes on Republican agreements. That argument over amendments would likely take center stage in any attempt to vote on another unemployment insurance package.
Aides in both parties said there’s been little contact between Reid and McConnell in recent days, and many Republicans remain convinced that Democrats ultimately would rather portray the GOP as the obstacle to restoring benefits, rather than pass a bill.
“They aren’t serious about passing anything,” said one top Republican aide.