WASHINGTON – The marathon dance featuring Senate Democrats and Republicans over extending unemployment benefits for 1.7 million out-of-work Americans will likely continue unabated for a while as the two factions measure the potential political impact.
Democrats, unified in support of the three-month extension, are using the inability to get a measure passed to paint reluctant Republicans in an unbecoming light, with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, proclaiming Wednesday that GOP lawmakers “don’t care” about struggling workers.
Republicans, meanwhile, offer several rationales for their opposition, generally ranging from adding to the budget deficit to Reid’s move limiting the party’s ability to amend the extension bill.
“Unfortunately, Democrats did not work with us, wouldn’t negotiate with us on how to pay for it,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said on Meet the Press on Sunday. “We also have record numbers of people long-term unemployed. And the Democratic answer to that is, ‘Let’s add more to the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance to emergency benefits, and let’s do nothing to reform the program. Let’s do nothing to give people the skills they need to access the jobs that are out there.'”
What’s clear is Democrats to this point are winning the contest in the eyes of the judges – the American public. A recent Fox News poll shows that 69 percent of people think unemployment insurance should last at least a year – far longer than the current 26 weeks.
Another survey released in January, this from Quinnipiac University, showed that 58 percent of those questioned nationwide, all registered voters, expressed support for a three-month extension.
But the real impact might be most severe on a state-by-state basis. Republicans, who currently hold 45 of the upper chamber’s 100 seats, are given a good chance of taking control of the Senate after the November elections, given the number of Democratic retirements and vulnerable seats. It’s possible that the unemployment insurance debate could get in the way of those plans.
Take the case of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who still has two years to serve before seeking re-election and opposes the extension, as a barometer. A survey released by Public Policy Polling – a Democratic firm – shows a majority of Illinois residents – 63 percent — in favor of reinstating jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Of those polled, 40 percent said Kirk’s vote makes them less likely to support him in the future while 31 percent think they would be more likely to support him.
And some candidates already are using the issue to nibble at the heels of GOP incumbents, indicating the issue might have legs. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state challenging Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell – if he survives a primary confrontation – in the fall has attacked him for opposing the extension.
“It is shameful that after failing for nearly 30 years to offer a credible plan to put Kentucky back to work, Mitch McConnell has the audacity to laugh in the faces of more than 18,000 unemployed Kentuckians, including 1,200 coal miners in Pike County,” Grimes said in a statement. “The people of Kentucky deserve a Senator they can be proud of — not one who offensively looks down upon our people and is an embarrassment to the values we hold dear. We take care of our own in this state.”
Democrats have sought to pass unemployment insurance legislation five times already this year, failing at each attempt. The most recent effort came on Feb. 4, when Republican lawmakers once again blocked a three-month extension at a cost of $6.4 billion.
The extended benefits were enacted in 2008 during the nation’s economic free-fall. It provided insurance to those searching for work for up to 99 weeks. That benefit expired on Dec. 28.
Democrats fell one vote short of the 60 needed to break a GOP filibuster. Four Republicans — Sen. Dean Heller, of Nevada, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine – joined with all the chamber’s Democrats and the two independents. The final vote was 58-40 with Reid switching his vote at the end for procedural reasons, allowing him to call it up again in the future.
Reid offered to pay the bill’s tab through a process known as “pension smoothing” — changing the rules about how much companies must contribute to their employees’ pension funds, resulting in a gush of money. It also offered a proposal from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) intended to prohibit those with gross income exceeding $1 million in the preceding year from receiving unemployment benefits. Regardless, Coburn opposed the measure.
Some Republicans continue to try to find a way out of the situation. Portman and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) offered an amendment Tuesday that they claim would pay for a three-month extension while reforming the program.
The Portman-Coats proposal prohibits overlapping payments for unemployment insurance benefits and Social Security disability benefits and reforms the program by strengthening existing requirements to ensure unemployment benefits are going to individuals actively trying to return to the labor force. The package would prohibit individuals from receiving Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits if they fail to accept any offer of suitable work.
“We should pay for that extension so as not to add to our record debt and we should include reforms that connect the unemployed with the jobs that are available,” said Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under former President George W. Bush. “Our amendment is a reasonable solution based on bipartisan proposals to pay for an extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits and reform the program so it works for the American people.”
But Reid accused Republicans of utilizing “obstruction and delay tactics” against “1.7 million Americans who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”
“Every single Democratic senator voted for this bill. Four reasonable Republicans voted with us to restore benefits that boost our economy and provide a lifeline for out-of-work Americans,” Reid said. “But we are still one Republican vote shy. And when 1.7 million struggling Americans fall short on the rent, skip meals to save cash or turn down the thermostat on freezing days, they will know who to blame.”
Reid said Democrats “will not stop pushing to restore emergency unemployment insurance. And in the weeks to come we will vote again on this important issue. In the meantime, I hope my colleagues across the aisle will think long and hard about their unsustainable position on this issue – a position that hurts middle-class families.”