Senators Start Over on Unemployment-Insurance Extension

Because so much time has passed, Congress is unlikely to grant retroactive benefits. Continued House opposition isn’t helping either.

A job seeker fills out an application during a career fair at the Southeast Community Facility Commission on May 21, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
June 4, 2014, 1 a.m.

Sen­ate ne­go­ti­at­ors are back at the draw­ing board in try­ing to re­new emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits for more than 2 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans who have been out of work for at least six months.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Is­land and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada have re­sumed ne­go­ti­ations to cre­ate new le­gis­la­tion that would ex­tend the be­ne­fits.

The Sen­ate passed a bill in April that would have ex­ten­ded the be­ne­fits through May and provided ret­ro­act­ive checks to those who had stopped re­ceiv­ing pay­ments since the pro­gram ex­pired on Dec. 28. But that le­gis­la­tion ex­pired on May 31 with no ac­tion in the House, put­ting the onus on sen­at­ors who fa­vor the pro­gram to try again.

Reed and Heller have been work­ing to­geth­er on a new solu­tion for at least two weeks and hope to ex­tend the pro­gram through at least the end of this year. While the na­tion­al un­em­ploy­ment rate is drop­ping, Reed said, the long-term un­em­ploy­ment rate is not. “We’re find­ing a lot of people who are mid-ca­reer, have worked for 20 or 30 years, and are just find­ing it very, very hard to get back in. And these be­ne­fits are vi­tal for them,” he said.

But the two sen­at­ors face a num­ber of con­straints that are ham­per­ing their ne­go­ti­ations. Be­cause the be­ne­fits dis­ap­peared more than five months ago and they’ll have to find some way to pay for every penny of the new bill, they warn that grant­ing ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits to mil­lions may not be pos­sible this time around.

“That’s hard to do at this point. It will prob­ably be pro­spect­ive,” Heller said. “I’m guess­ing that we just go for­ward at this point. Five months of [ret­ro­act­ive] UI at this point, is a big, big bite of the apple. So that’s not guar­an­teed, but I’m telling you that we real­ize that we are in a bind right now try­ing to make it ret­ro­act­ive.”

An­oth­er con­cern is con­tin­ued op­pos­i­tion from House Speak­er John Boehner, who has said over and over since mid-Decem­ber that the cham­ber will not take up an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance bill un­less it in­cludes a sep­ar­ate pro­vi­sion that ad­dresses job cre­ation.

Reed said they are not dis­cuss­ing that as an op­tion in the Sen­ate, and he called Boehner hy­po­crit­ic­al after the House passed a tax-ex­tenders bill last month that wasn’t paid for at all. “[I] found it iron­ic that the House could pass an un­fun­ded tax-ex­tenders bill, and yet de­mand that our bill — you know, wasn’t suf­fi­cient even though it was paid for and bi­par­tis­an,” Reed said.

But Heller said that he agreed with Boehner and that the bill should in­clude a jobs pro­vi­sion. The only prob­lem is, it’s not polit­ic­ally pos­sible for him to in­clude one in the Sen­ate pack­age. “If I could, I would,” Heller said.

In­stead, Heller is ur­ging Boehner and oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans to take up the new Sen­ate bill (as­sum­ing it gets through the up­per cham­ber first) and add their own jobs pro­vi­sion on the back end. Then the two cham­bers can go to con­fer­ence and work out their dif­fer­ences, he said.

For the time be­ing, Heller and Reed ap­pear to be work­ing on their own. Just over a week ago, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was one of the six Re­pub­lic­ans to help push the ori­gin­al un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion pack­age through the Sen­ate in April, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that she was not in­volved in the new dis­cus­sions.

Murkowski ex­pressed con­cerns that the Sen­ate was in a po­s­i­tion of “start­ing over” on the le­gis­la­tion and that too much time may have passed to come up with a solu­tion. “Without hav­ing a dir­ect con­ver­sa­tion with the two guys who are try­ing to breathe life in­to it, I can’t say that it’s com­pletely dead. “¦ It’s not look­ing good right now — I guess that’s the best way to sum it up,” she said.

Neither Reed nor Heller could spec­u­late on a time frame for when they might in­tro­duce a new Sen­ate pack­age.

“We’re work­ing on it,” Reed said. “It’s not something we’re ig­nor­ing. “¦ We have to look for a le­gis­lat­ive path. We have to find the right sort of for­mula, lit­er­ally and fig­ur­at­ively. And then we have to make sure that we have the ne­ces­sary bi­par­tis­an sup­port here.”

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