Is There a Way Forward on Unemployment Insurance in the Senate?

Democrats are searching for just one Republican to break the deadlock.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., speak on unemployment insurance on January 14, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

As sen­at­ors re­turned to Wash­ing­ton on Monday after an ex­ten­ded Pres­id­ents Day hol­i­day, Demo­crats got back to work in their hunt for just one more Re­pub­lic­an to back an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits.

Demo­crats have nar­rowed their search sig­ni­fic­antly and are work­ing with three po­ten­tial swing votes — Sens. Rob Port­man of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Dan Coats of In­di­ana — to pass the ex­ten­sion.

Of the three, Kirk is con­sidered the most likely to jump on board with the bill, ac­cord­ing to a seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide. Though Port­man was work­ing with a bi­par­tis­an group to come up with a pal­at­able solu­tion as re­cently as last week, he is in­creas­ingly con­sidered an un­likely yea.

That may be be­cause, as he said Monday, Port­man is still fo­cused on pur­su­ing a three-month ex­ten­sion of the pro­gram, rather than the year­long fix many Demo­crats are hop­ing for. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Monday that a short-term solu­tion may have been an at­tract­ive op­tion for his party a few weeks ago, but time is just about up.

Ne­go­ti­at­ors are pur­su­ing ret­ro­act­ive le­gis­la­tion that would re­im­burse in­di­vidu­als for the be­ne­fits they missed after the pro­gram ex­pired on Dec. 28. A three-month ex­ten­sion, which would ex­pire at the end of March, wouldn’t provide them with much se­cur­ity mov­ing for­ward.

“You know, we want to pass it. But with each passing day a three-month ex­ten­sion, par­tic­u­larly if it’s ret­ro­act­ive, be­comes simply a lump-sum pay­ment,” Reed said. “So, it’s just a ques­tion really of tim­ing. If we could get things done im­me­di­ately, as we tried to do sev­er­al weeks ago, then that made all the sense in the world. Now, we’re just get­ting to the point where if you’re talk­ing about something that’s strictly ret­ro­act­ive that’s a lot dif­fer­ent than at least giv­ing people a chance not only to make a pay­ment, but to have some susten­ance go­ing for­ward.”

The ne­go­ti­ations, which are on­go­ing, fol­low a vote earli­er this month in which four Re­pub­lic­ans joined with Demo­crats to pass an ex­ten­sion, leav­ing ad­voc­ates just one vote short of end­ing de­bate to se­cure a vic­tory. Since then, mem­bers have been home in their dis­tricts for more than a week, en­joy­ing an ex­ten­ded hol­i­day. Demo­crats hope that their Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues en­dured suf­fi­cient com­plaints from con­stitu­ents suf­fer­ing without their un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits to soften their po­s­i­tions on the is­sue.

Ap­prox­im­ately 1.9 mil­lion formerly eli­gible Amer­ic­ans are cur­rently liv­ing without the be­ne­fits, a total that is es­tim­ated to in­crease by 72,000 in­di­vidu­als every week. Demo­crats in both cham­bers have com­mit­ted to passing an ex­ten­sion, while Re­pub­lic­ans, par­tic­u­larly in the House, have been reti­cent to jump on board.

For now, the battle lines are be­ing drawn in the Sen­ate, where Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id is work­ing with Reed and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. — who have co­sponsored sev­er­al bills to re­in­state the be­ne­fits — to bring more Re­pub­lic­ans in­to the fold. Re­id per­son­ally called Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is a strong sup­port­er on the Re­pub­lic­an side, on Monday, and Collins said she had dis­cussed the is­sue with her col­leagues over the week­end as well.

Collins wouldn’t spec­u­late on wheth­er pro­gress was be­ing made, but offered a warn­ing to Re­id, who has re­fused to al­low Re­pub­lic­ans to of­fer amend­ments on a fix in the past. “It all de­pends on wheth­er there are amend­ments, what hap­pens to those amend­ments, where there’s a fair pro­cess,” she said.

Kirk, mean­while, said Monday that he had not been in talks with Demo­crats over the week-and-a-half re­cess, but said that as a mod­er­ate, he wasn’t sur­prised that the party was reach­ing out to him.

Kirk noted that he is seek­ing “a real no-gim­micks pay-for” to off­set the cost of ex­tend­ing the pro­gram. Kirk op­posed a bill last month that would have paid for the be­ne­fits ex­ten­sion through a pro­cess called “pen­sion smooth­ing,” which has been widely panned by Re­pub­lic­ans as a budget­ary gim­mick that will save money in the short-term and cost even more in the long-run.

Coats said he wasn’t in­volved in the talks over the break either, but that his staff con­tin­ued to dis­cuss the is­sue with Demo­crats. Asked wheth­er he sees a path for­ward, Coats de­murred: “Well there’s al­ways a way for­ward, but as you know get­ting from start to fin­ish here is not the easi­est thing to do. So any­way, it all con­tin­ues.”

Should the sen­at­ors come to a deal whereby they can ex­pect 60 votes, however, pas­sage is ex­pec­ted as early as Monday.

Reed soun­ded hope­ful, but guarded, on Monday. “There’s a lot of thought­ful dis­cus­sion on both sides. And I think it’s — I’ll leave it at that. That’s usu­ally the pre­lude to any kind of for­ward mo­tion,” he said.

But if the ex­ten­sion does fail again, Re­id has com­mit­ted to keep up the fight and Demo­crats will con­tin­ue to use the is­sue as midterm elec­tion mes­saging.

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