A bipartisan Senate plan to extend emergency unemployment-insurance benefits is driving a wedge between Republicans on both sides of the Capitol.
House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican architect of a Senate bill to extend benefits up to June are clashing over a letter from an interest group representing state workforce agencies that says the bill would cause delays in restarting payments to eligible beneficiaries.
"It is extremely disappointing that, no matter what solution is reached, there is some excuse to deny these much-needed benefits," Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada said in a statement. "I look forward to passing this proposal out of the Senate next week, and stand ready to help the speaker, as well as any organization or any individual necessary, in order to make this extension a reality."
At issue is legislation that Majority Leader Harry Reid expects the Senate will pass when it returns from its recess next week. The nearly $10 billion extension, which is retroactive to Dec. 28, is offset by pay-fors brokered over a weeks-long negotiation.
The National Association of State Workforce Agencies says implementing the Senate bill could take one to three months, which Boehner said renders the measure "unworkable." The group also took issue with a key provision of the legislation that would end benefits for those with an adjusted gross income over $1 million. The system is not means-tested, and so it doesn't collect information on adjusted gross income, wrote Mark Henry, the group's president.
Despite GOP support in the Senate, Boehner is using the letter as a cudgel with which to whack Democrats.
"We have always said that we're willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Washington Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally responsible, and gets to the root of the problem by helping to create more private-sector jobs," Boehner said in a statement. "There is no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by Leader Reid meets that test, and according to these state directors, the bill is also simply unworkable."
Heller has been a key negotiator on the Senate bill, and at least four other Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Rob Portman of Ohio, have signed onto the agreement as well.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the chief Democratic author of the deal, pointed out that Congress has passed emergency unemployment benefits before and that implementation should not be a problem for the states.
"The real question is will Speaker Boehner allow an up or down vote on this bipartisan compromise?" Reed said in a statement.
Heller and Reed jointly released a point-by-point takedown of the letter from the association of state agencies. Where the group argues that some states' computer systems are too old to quickly handle changes, Heller and Reed called for Congress and the states to find a solution, "instead of saying it can't be done."
For his part, Reid views the problems outlined in the letter as solvable, and he suggests that Boehner come to the table to work them out, according to spokesman Adam Jentleson. "It is hard to imagine Speaker Boehner simply walking away from the thousands of people in Ohio who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and need this lifeline to make ends meet while they continue to look for work," Jentleson said.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are highlighting the GOP split on the bill and pressuring Boehner to move the legislation.
"Those changes were added at the behest of Republican senators," said House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
The legislation is paid for through a number of bipartisan measures, including so-called "pension smoothing" as well as an extension of customs user fees.
Besides achieving the policy goal of aiding the long-term unemployed, at least through May, the measure has election-year implications as well. Democratic outside groups are pointing to the bill as an accomplishment as well as using it to attack Republicans, while some Republicans are just philosophically opposed to extending such benefits.
For his part, Boehner seems to view the Senate deal as a missed opportunity to focus on jobs. "Frankly, a better use of the Senate's time would be taking up and passing the dozens of House-passed jobs bills still awaiting action," he said.
Billy House contributed to this article.
This article appears in the March 20, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.