Senate Democrats offered on Thursday to extend unemployment insurance benefits for 93 weeks, defying calls from House Republicans to accept modifications to the federal jobless benefit program as time runs short to reach a deal.
The proposal includes a maximum of 93 weeks of benefits for the hardest hit states but would reduce the total number of weeks to 73 for some states with lower unemployment rates. It rejects some of the most controversial elements of the House Republican plan, including drug testing and high school diploma requirements. Those elements have been panned by Democrats since first proposed last December. But they are touted as essential to gaining Republican support in the House.
The offer is likely to rally Democrats who have grown frustrated by conference committee negotiations confined to elements of the House-passed bill. The new offer is certain to draw fury from Republicans, who have said a serious step forward must include compromises on big issues untouched by this proposal.
“Our progress on resolving unemployment issues over the past week and the latest offer today are part of a real effort to work through these issues and get to ‘yes,’” said a Democratic aide with knowledge of the negotiations. “We look forward to continued progress.”
Democrats and Republicans on the conference committee met separately in close-door sessions to discuss the offer and how to move forward before the Feb. 29 deadline. There are currently no plans for a bipartisan meeting but Democrats have already begun to accuse Republicans of being unwilling to engage in serious negotiations.
“I think they should recognize that this is a change in our position and we’re trying to work this out with them and now they’ve taken a hard-line position that you’ve got to take what is in the House bill, that is not a compromise,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the conference committee. “We’re waiting to hear back from them and discussions will continue on the other pieces.”
The negotiations were no kinder in public. Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., sparred on the House floor over the extension. Cantor said Republicans would oppose any proposal that constitutes a tax increase for any American, a reaction that was just one part of the frosty reception from GOP members.
"It bothers me to hear that the gentleman just wants to rely on an IOU," Cantor said. "The public is tired of saying, 'yes, we'll owe it, we'll owe it, we'll pay it later.'"
Hoyer told National Journal later that a big hurdle to reaching a deal has been a the recalcitrant GOP leadership position and that Democrats were ready to negotiate all elements of the package.
“I think there is some flexibility,” he said. “We want to get this payroll tax done and we want to get unemployment insurance done and we’re prepared to work towards that objective. Unfortunately we have a lot of Republican leaders who don’t want to do the payroll tax. I think that’s probably the biggest impediment to us moving forward.”