WASHINGTON – The Senate opened the door to reviving an expired unemployment compensation program on Tuesday, opting to avoid a potential Republican filibuster and avoid what one lawmaker likened to pushing those out of work “off an economic cliff.”
The 60-37 procedural vote that permits the upper chamber to consider the extension came as something of a surprise. In his remarks before the tally, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, indicated that he thought supporters would likely pull up just short of the 60 needed to break a looming GOP roadblock.
But those concerns were lifted when Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who earlier expressed opposition to the bill in its current form, voted to proceed to debate, maintaining the Senate “should have the opportunity to debate and improve this important legislation.”
“The unemployment insurance benefits program needs to be reformed to ensure that it works better for those truly in need and connects those who are unemployed with available jobs,” said Coats, who said he will vote against the bill if changes aren’t rendered. “Additionally, Congress cannot continue to rack up more debt and pass the bill along to our children. Any further extension of this program should be paid for and I am working on offering amendments that both would offset this cost and help put Americans back to work.”
Six Republicans voted in support of consideration – Coats, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), and Rob Portman (Ohio) – handing Reid and the entire Democratic caucus just enough support to bring it to the floor.
Should it pass the Senate later this week as expected, the bill will move to the House where its future is less clear. House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, said the lower chamber will only pass unemployment legislation that contains spending cuts in other government programs to offset the estimated $6.55 billion cost.
“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” Boehner said. “To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”
The legislation extends the temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which was initiated in 2008 during the height of the financial crisis, by another 47 weeks. The emergency measure opened the door to extending the time limit for the long-term unemployed to collect benefits.
But the extension expired at the onset of 2014 when Republicans opposed its inclusion in the bipartisan budget bill intended to keep the federal government running for two more years. That left 1.3 million out of work without benefits. Another 1.9 million won’t have access to the emergency program during the first six months of next year. If Congress does not renew the law, those out of work who file for unemployment benefits in 2014 will only qualify for state benefits, which last a maximum of 26 weeks. Reports show that the average unemployed person is out of work and searching for a new job for 36 weeks.
The federal government reports that 36 percent of those unemployed have been out of work for more than six months and the economy still has 1.5 million fewer jobs than before the 2008 recession.
According to the House Ways and Means Committee, the most recent Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was in place longer (66 months), was extended more times (12), aided more people (24 million), cost more than $265 billion, and added more to the national debt ($210 billion) than any previous program.
During debate on the cloture motion that leads to a final vote on the package sometime later this week, Reid charged that Republicans had “callously turned their backs on the long-term unemployed” and asserted that every dollar provided unemployed workers under the program grows the national economy by $1.50 as a result of increased commerce.
In the past, Reid said, the Senate has always “put politics aside and put America first” when it came to supporting those who find themselves out of work.
“Republicans need to take this as serious as we do,” Reid said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, expressed surprise at the “fervor” Reid employed in seeking support for the extension since Democrats “ignored the issue all of last year.” He also expressed sympathy for those unemployed as a result of the economic policies of President Obama but stressed that the GOP caucus couldn’t support the measure as written.
McConnell said the extension could gain Republican support if Reid agreed to an amendment that postponed the mandatory coverage provisions in the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – for one year and repealed a provision in the budget bill that cut the pensions of some military veterans by one percent.
That offer was rejected by Reid, who said negotiations already are underway between the House and Senate to restore the one percent cut.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Republican attempts to introduce other provisions into the extension measure are a smokescreen offered because “they know power of this issue but still don’t want to vote on it.” Democrats aren’t about to agree to changes in Obamacare “on the fly.”
“If you believe in unemployment benefits, don’t play games,” Schumer said. “Don’t put obstacles in their path. Get it done. People want to work.”
The White House reacted positively to the procedural vote. President Obama said the economy has been growing and new jobs are being added but that the 2008 financial crisis “was so devastating that there’s still a lot of people who are struggling. And, in fact, if we don’t provide unemployment insurance it makes it harder for them to find a job.”
Unemployment insurance, Obama said, provides “a vital economic lifeline. For a lot of people, it’s the only source of income they’ve got to support their families while they look for a new job. These aren’t folks who are just sitting back waiting for things to happen. They’re out there actively looking for work. They desperately want work.”
Regardless, several conservative groups opposed the extension and promised to hold accountable those lawmakers who cleared a path for debate. Heritage Action for America, and arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said an extension would have an adverse effect on the nation’s economy, asserting that it leads to higher unemployment during a longer period of time and acts as an ineffective stimulus.
The Club for Growth, meanwhile, maintained that Congress should end the federal unemployment insurance program and return the authority to the states, “which already have programs in place.” If Congress balks at that proposal, it should pay for any extension by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget.
“After six years, an extension can no longer be called an ‘emergency’ with any credibility,” the organization said in a statement. “There is plenty of waste in the federal budget from which to find an offset.”
The vote will be included in the Club’s 2014 Congressional Scorecard.
Obama rejected any claim that unemployment insurance hurts the unemployed because it zaps their motivation to get a new job.
“I can’t name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job,” he said. “The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They’re not lacking in motivation. They’re coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations.”