Long-term unemployment insurance hasn't made its way into a budget deal, but Democrats are still looking for avenues to extend the benefit past the end of the year.
On Dec. 28, 1.3 million people will lose emergency federal unemployment insurance, a benefit that kicks in for the out-of-work after they exhaust state benefits, which tend to run 26 weeks. The last time the program was extended, it was done via the fiscal-cliff budget deal.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is leading the extension fight in the Senate, made a unanimous-consent request Tuesday to extend the insurance for a year. It failed to advance. "We've asked, as Democrats, that this UI proposal be part of the budget negotiations," Reed said. "We've had to seek a stand-alone legislative vehicle" instead.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray said together at a press conference that a separate provision to extend the benefit is not part of the agreement.
House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., suggested a potential farm-bill agreement as one vehicle to extend the insurance. Another: legislation to change the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, aka the "doc fix."
"I don't think we should address physician payment without addressing the needs of 1.3 million people on December 28," Levin said.
"Some of us will not support the doc fix unless it has unemployment insurance; it's as simple as that," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said. "We're not going to tell the doctors they can make their money but for the people who are unemployed, no, we can't extend it."
The doc fix is one of the rare items there seems to be bipartisan appetite to address by year's end, and it will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee. But Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he's "doubtful" that unemployment insurance will be part of those discussions.
Expect at least some progressives to be lined up against the budget deal because, in part, of its exclusion of unemployment benefits. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., cochair of the House Progressive Caucus, said in a statement that he "strongly" opposes a budget deal that asks federal employees to pay more into their pensions and lets unemployment insurance expire. The budget deal does include federal and military pension pay-ins, but not nearly as high as where negotiations had started.
Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he wasn't comfortable with the contours of the deal. "Patty Murray is doing the very best she can under difficult circumstances," he said. But as for whether unemployment insurance was a deal-breaker for Sanders when it comes to voting for the final deal, he said, "I'm going to do everything I can do to see that we get it."
Given the outcry from outside conservative groups, some Democrats predict House conservatives will likewise oppose the deal. "It looks like they'll need our votes [to pass a budget]," Levin said prior to the budget announcement. "And I think there have been some discussions between the White House and the speaker and between our leadership and the speaker. He said he was open and we take him at his word."
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner said that "if the president has a plan for extending unemployment benefits, I'd surely entertain taking a look at it." Later in the week, though, he said a strong jobs report "should discourage calls for more emergency government "˜stimulus.' "