Changing of the Guard in House Leadership Does Little for Unemployment Insurance Prospects

Senate Republican supporters are wary of signing onto another bill that’s going nowhere.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: Senators Dean Heller (R-NV), left, and Jack Reed (D-RI) speak to the press after a 61-35 vote in the Senate to advance the previous Reed-Heller unemployment insurance bill on April 3, 2014.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
June 24, 2014, 8:13 a.m.

Sens. Jack Reed and Dean Heller in­tro­duced an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance bill on Tues­day morn­ing, of­fer­ing new le­gis­la­tion that looks very much like the bill they passed in April that failed to gain any in­terest from House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship be­fore it ex­pired in May.

“What I was hop­ing would be a sprint has be­come a mara­thon,” Heller joked Tues­day.

The new bi­par­tis­an bill would re­store un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits for five months but would not be not ret­ro­act­ive to last Decem­ber. It is, however, pro­tec­ted by the same off­sets as the pre­vi­ous Sen­ate bill — which were called “gim­micks” by many House Re­pub­lic­ans and a num­ber of their coun­ter­parts in the Sen­ate — and does not in­clude a sep­ar­ate jobs pro­vi­sion, something House Speak­er John Boehner has said would be ne­ces­sary for his cham­ber to con­sider it.

The Sen­ate’s new bill would cost a little less than $10 bil­lion and cov­er five months of be­ne­fits. Un­like the pre­vi­ous Sen­ate bill that ex­pired on May 31, the new five-month count­down won’t be­gin un­til after the pres­id­ent signs the le­gis­la­tion, pre­vent­ing sen­at­ors from hav­ing to start over again like they did last time.

Giv­en the lack of sub­stan­tial changes to the bill, even staunch sup­port­ers say pas­sage ap­pears un­likely. “I think it’s go­ing to be very tough,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said.

But Heller and Reed, whose home states of Nevada and Rhode Is­land have the highest un­em­ploy­ment rates in the coun­try, re­main pos­it­ive. “I think this can get done,” Heller said at a press con­fer­ence Tues­day. “It’s go­ing to take more sides work­ing to­geth­er, try­ing to solve this prob­lem.”

Heller began this week with a po­ten­tial ace in his pock­et: a close ally who re­cently rose up in the ranks of House lead­er­ship.

At first, the elec­tion of Kev­in Mc­Carthy of Cali­for­nia to House ma­jor­ity lead­er Thursday looked like a good sign for un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ad­voc­ates. Heller and Mc­Carthy were both mem­bers of the class of 2006 in the House and hail from neigh­bor­ing states. When mur­murs of Eric Can­tor’s resig­na­tion began two weeks ago, Heller crossed the Cap­it­ol to drop by Mc­Carthy’s of­fice and of­fer his sup­port. The two didn’t dis­cuss un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance in that meet­ing, but the close re­la­tion­ship between Heller and Mc­Carthy offered a ray of hope that, at the very least, Heller’s in­terest in the is­sue would be heard.

Heller has since called the new ma­jor­ity lead­er and re­ceived some dis­ap­point­ing news: Mc­Carthy and Boehner are on the same page. “His mes­sage was very clear. It was very sim­il­ar to Boehner’s — very sim­il­ar to Boehner’s — and that is, ‘We want job pro­vi­sions,’ ” Heller said, adding that their con­ver­sa­tions will con­tin­ue. Boehner has called re­peatedly on Pres­id­ent Obama to make a deal with the House, of­fer­ing re­forms to en­ergy, taxes, or the health care law, Heller sug­ges­ted, in re­turn for an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits.

Heller is still hope­ful, and has said re­peatedly in re­cent weeks that he’s sym­path­et­ic to the House mem­bers’ con­cerns. The cham­ber has about 40 jobs bills lan­guish­ing in the Sen­ate and would like to see one or more brought to the floor in ex­change for a vote on un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance.

Heller said he has spoken with Obama about the is­sue, and was grate­ful for his sup­port, but he called on the pres­id­ent to take a more act­ive role on the is­sue. “I know this is­sue is im­port­ant to the pres­id­ent,” he said “He needs to be more en­gaged. He needs to pick up the phone and talk to the speak­er and say, ‘Hey, how can we get this done?’ ” Heller said.

But Reed, a Demo­crat, said that the Sen­ate has already jumped through a num­ber of hoops for House Re­pub­lic­ans — pay­ing for both Sen­ate bills and re­mov­ing ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits, which the House ar­gued would be dif­fi­cult to ad­min­is­ter, in the new le­gis­la­tion — and he called ad­di­tion­al con­cerns from the House “not reas­ons [to not pass the Sen­ate bills], but ex­cuses.”More than 3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans have lost their un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits since the pro­gram ex­pired last year, he noted. “I don’t think we can leave these fam­il­ies be­hind,” he said.

And with sum­mer com­ing and un­rest in the Middle East, Heller ad­ded, this le­gis­la­tion is more im­port­ant than even. Heller said he is grow­ing con­cerned about gas prices go­ing up dur­ing travel sea­son and put­ting even more fam­il­ies in a fin­an­cial bind.

For now, the lack of move­ment in the House has even some Sen­ate ad­voc­ates for re­form balk­ing at the idea of an­oth­er vote that’s head­ing nowhere. “You know, how many times do we have to go through this ex­er­cise without the House ac­tu­ally show­ing some in­terest or mak­ing some move­ment so that we can all jump on board,” Heller said of Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­ers. “They don’t want to go through this ex­er­cise over and over again. And they’ll end up cast­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate votes, but they want this le­gis­la­tion [to be­come law].”

Al­though the new le­gis­la­tion does not in­clude ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits for those who stopped re­ceiv­ing checks after un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ex­pired in Decem­ber, it will al­low those who had not yet com­pleted the pro­gram to re­sume re­ceiv­ing be­ne­fits for however many weeks they had left when the pro­gram ex­pired.

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