There’s a New Plan to Extend Unemployment Insurance. But It’s DOA.

Senate Democrats are pushing a plan that House Republicans rejected months ago.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 07: Protesters take part in a 'Rise Up for the Unemployed' demonstration on Wall Street across from the New York Stock Exchange on February 7, 2014 in New York City. Protesters called for Congress to restore extended unemployment befefits for millions of Americans without work and for a change in the Federal Reserve's policies in support of big banks.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
March 6, 2014, midnight

Demo­crats are push­ing yet an­oth­er pro­pos­al to re­store un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits with an off­set that may look fa­mil­i­ar to House Re­pub­lic­ans. The plan is ac­tu­ally modeled on one they re­jec­ted in Decem­ber, and it looks as though it will face severe op­pos­i­tion in the House and will likely fail in the Sen­ate as well.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who has been a fierce ad­voc­ate for the ex­ten­sion, pro­posed a bill late Tues­day that would provide six months of un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits (in­clud­ing three months of back pay for the checks missed after the be­ne­fits ex­pired in Decem­ber). It would be paid for out of sav­ings from the farm bill passed by Con­gress in Feb­ru­ary.

Demo­crats have un­suc­cess­fully tried this tac­tic be­fore. In mid-Decem­ber, as the budget agree­ment headed to the floor, Reps. Sander Lev­in of Michigan and Chris Van Hol­len of Mary­land pushed for the Rules Com­mit­tee to al­low a vote on a three-month un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion that would be paid for out of sav­ings from the yet-to-be of­fi­cial farm bill. The sav­ings, however, had already been agreed to.

House Re­pub­lic­ans re­jec­ted the pack­age, pre­fer­ring to keep the farm-bill sav­ings to fur­ther re­duce the de­fi­cit, and blocked the bill from mak­ing it to the floor.

Still, Sen­ate Demo­crats plan to bring up the pack­age in the next week or two. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id said Wed­nes­day that he could not give a more spe­cif­ic date for the vote be­cause of delays caused by the re­cent snowstorm.

That plan has House Re­pub­lic­ans ac­cus­ing Demo­crats of play­ing polit­ic­al games on the is­sue, rather than work­ing to find a bicam­er­al solu­tion. “Call­ing a play that failed the last time isn’t a plan for suc­cess — it’s an­oth­er sign that Sen­ate Demo­crats want a polit­ic­al is­sue more than they want a bill signed in­to law,” a House Re­pub­lic­an aide said Wed­nes­day.

Re­id, however, re­mains fo­cused on the Sen­ate, hop­ing that a strong bi­par­tis­an vote in the up­per cham­ber will force the House to take up an ex­ten­sion. Re­id said Wed­nes­day he is work­ing hard to push more of his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues to sign onto the new Reed bill. “I have to pull out all the stops to try to pick up an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an vote,” Re­id said. “It’s not the Demo­crats I have to worry about it. It’s the Re­pub­lic­ans.”

But the new­est pro­pos­al may ac­tu­ally lose even more Re­pub­lic­an votes than the last pack­age Re­id and his al­lies brought to the Sen­ate floor, which came up just one Re­pub­lic­an short in a pro­ced­ur­al vote. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who joined Demo­crats on an ex­ten­sion vote last month, in­dic­ated Wed­nes­day that they are un­likely to back the new bill.

“What I think is go­ing to be im­port­ant — you’ve got to have a cred­ible pro­pos­al with a cred­ible pay-for. I’ve asked my folks to take a look at it, but I’m not feel­ing really warm about it right now,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski and oth­ers fear that the farm-bill sav­ings may nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ize. The Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice noted in its 10-year ana­lys­is of the farm bill that the ma­jor­ity of its sav­ings would come in the last five years. But farm bills are only five-year deals, and by 2019 Con­gress will be in the pro­cess of passing new le­gis­la­tion, which may not in­clude the same sav­ings. As a res­ult, Murkowski, Collins, and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans are look­ing for an al­tern­at­ive solu­tion.

But the fact that Murkowski, Collins, and oth­ers may be balk­ing at the Reed bill’s off­set is news to Demo­crats. “That’s not what they’re telling us in private,” com­plained a seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide.

Both Murkowski and Collins poin­ted to a new bill be­ing pro­moted by Sen. Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, as a bet­ter solu­tion to the is­sue. “I think that Sen­at­or Port­man has come up with a far more le­git­im­ate pay-for. And I don’t want to pree­mpt his an­nounce­ment, but it’s one that I would sup­port,” Collins said.

Port­man said that he will re­lease that bill later this week, but de­clined to out­line what type of pay-for he and his col­leagues are cur­rently con­sid­er­ing.

That’s frus­trat­ing for Sen­ate Demo­crats, who say Port­man is not ne­go­ti­at­ing in good faith. Lead­er­ship already offered to give Port­man an amend­ment on the Reed bill in or­der to bring the Ohio Re­pub­lic­an and some of his oth­er col­leagues in­to the fold. That amend­ment, which Port­man in­tro­duced in Janu­ary, would pre­vent in­di­vidu­als from col­lect­ing un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits while also draw­ing from the So­cial Se­cur­ity dis­ab­il­ity fund, an idea that was also in­cluded in Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2015 budget.

But at­tach­ing that amend­ment to Reed’s le­gis­la­tion ap­pears to be in­suf­fi­cient for Port­man, who is plan­ning to re­lease a sep­ar­ate bill en­tirely. Port­man con­tin­ues to move the yard­stick, the seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide said.

Demo­crats on the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee es­tim­ated Wed­nes­day that 2 mil­lion un­em­ployed Amer­ic­ans are now liv­ing without the be­ne­fits, which ex­pired  Dec. 28.

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