House Dems Dreaming of Extending Unemployment Insurance by Christmas

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 23: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) answers questions during a press conference October 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. Pelosi answered questions on the problems surrounding the website for the Affordable Care Act during her remarks. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Dec. 5, 2013, 3:27 p.m.

Stan Os­now­itz has been out of work since his last job as an elec­tri­cian ended in Ju­ly. The 67-year-old from Bal­timore says he still wakes up around 4 a.m. every day to look for work, while re­ly­ing on state un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits that are sched­uled to run out in Janu­ary.

“I hate be­ing un­em­ployed. It’s a waste of my time, my abil­it­ies,” Os­now­itz told the House Demo­crat­ic Steer­ing Com­mit­tee on Thursday, which in­vited a hand­ful of long-term un­em­ployed Amer­ic­ans to talk about un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits. “If Con­gress lets the un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance shut down, I won’t even be able to put gas in my car to look for a job.”

After his state un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits run out, Os­now­itz will join 1.3 mil­lion people who will no longer re­ceive fed­er­al emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance on Dec. 28, un­less Con­gress ex­tends the pro­gram.

But as of this week, the be­ne­fit doesn’t ap­pear to be mak­ing its way in­to a budget deal. That could change, of course; the budget con­fer­ence, which hasn’t reached a deal yet, has a Dec. 13 dead­line. And a week is a long time on the Hill.

A House Re­pub­lic­an staffer with know­ledge of the budget talks said he would be “very sur­prised” if the ex­ten­sion was in­cluded in a fi­nal budget deal, giv­en wide­spread op­pos­i­tion among the GOP — al­though he couldn’t rule any­thing out.

“If the pres­id­ent has a plan for ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, I’d surely en­ter­tain tak­ing a look at it,” House Speak­er John Boehner told re­port­ers Thursday. “But I would ar­gue that the pres­id­ent’s real fo­cus ought to be cre­at­ing a bet­ter en­vir­on­ment for our eco­nomy and cre­at­ing more jobs for the Amer­ic­an people. That’s where the fo­cus is, not more gov­ern­ment pro­grams.”

Asked wheth­er he thinks it should be ex­ten­ded for ad­di­tion­al weeks, Boehner re­spon­ded: “I’m not the ex­pert. Talk to the chair­man of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee.”

House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor said ex­tend­ing the pro­gram would “lead to a great­er de­fi­cit,” and he cited a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port to ar­gue that some who are eli­gible for the be­ne­fit would re­duce the in­tens­ity of their job searches and re­main un­em­ployed longer. The re­port es­tim­ated mod­est neg­at­ive ef­fects.

Ex­tend­ing the pro­gram has be­come a ma­jor pri­or­ity for Demo­crats. House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said his caucus would op­pose the House ad­journ­ing on Dec. 13 if it hasn’t been passed. Demo­crats point to a re­port re­leased Thursday by the pres­id­ent’s Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Ad­visers show­ing an­oth­er 3.6 mil­lion stand to lose the in­sur­ance by the end of 2014. The CBO also es­tim­ated that ex­tend­ing the cur­rent pro­gram for an­oth­er year will add 200,000 jobs and 0.2 per­cent to the gross do­mest­ic product, as well as in­crease the de­fi­cit by $25 bil­lion over 10 years.

“We are mak­ing a very clear state­ment that we can­not, can­not sup­port a budget agree­ment that does not in­clude un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, in the budget or as a side­bar to move it all along,” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said Thursday morn­ing. By the af­ter­noon, she ap­peared to walk that strategy back a bit, say­ing that she hopes it can be part of a budget deal but that it doesn’t have to be: “It could be its own vehicle as we go for­ward,” she said. “But I still do want to see an un­em­ploy­ment bill.”

Re­pub­lic­an House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an is ne­go­ti­at­ing the budget deal with his Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate coun­ter­part, Patty Mur­ray. Ac­cord­ing to Mur­ray spokes­man Eli Zupnick, the sen­at­or “would like to ex­tend [un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance] in the budget con­fer­ence, has made it clear that she will be push­ing for it, and it re­mains an open item in the dis­cus­sions.”

In Oc­to­ber, the un­em­ploy­ment rate was 7.3 per­cent, and about 4.1 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans were clas­si­fied as long-term un­em­ployed — mean­ing for 27 weeks or more, ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics. The fed­er­al emer­gency be­ne­fit kicks in once state be­ne­fits are ex­hausted, which is 26 weeks in most places.

House Re­pub­lic­ans are op­posed to ex­tend­ing the be­ne­fit. House Ways and Means Chair­man Dave Camp, R-Mich., has said he hopes it ex­pires. Re­pub­lic­ans have ar­gued that it in­creases the de­fi­cit and keeps people from look­ing for jobs. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a mem­ber of the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily that “my view is still it’s very un­likely to garner the votes to pass.”

“That’s a pretty big item to fig­ure out how to fund,” Cole later said. “The pres­id­ent would need to sub­mit a plan and sort of tell us how he en­vi­sions pay­ing for it. This stuff which at some point was sup­posed to end, … at some point it has to stop; if there’s a real eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery, you don’t need un­em­ploy­ment [in­sur­ance] at this level for this ex­ten­ded peri­od of time.”

House Ways and Means rank­ing mem­ber Sander Lev­in, D-Mich., told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily that the be­ne­fit, which first passed in 2008, has tra­di­tion­ally been ex­ten­ded as an emer­gency meas­ure without a pay-for. Con­gress last ex­ten­ded it as part of the fisc­al-cliff deal.

Lev­in said his side has tried to en­gage Re­pub­lic­ans. “At this point, they don’t have a clear po­s­i­tion. I take what the speak­er said today as en­cour­aging.”

Pres­id­ent Obama has called on Con­gress to ex­tend the be­ne­fit, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion is not sig­nal­ing the is­sue as a make-or-break on a fi­nal budget deal. White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney de­clined to say wheth­er Obama would sign a budget deal without the ex­ten­sion. “What I can’t do is ne­go­ti­ate budget com­prom­ises from here,” he told re­port­ers Thursday. “The pres­id­ent strongly sup­ports the ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits.”

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