Will Boehner Blink on Jobless Benefits?

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Speaker of the House John Boehner.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Michael Catalini
Jan. 5, 2014, 7 a.m.

More than a mil­lion un­em­ployed Amer­ic­ans could soon re­ceive a post-hol­i­day bo­nus check from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, if con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats get their way.

The Sen­ate will take up a bill Monday even­ing to re­store un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits to the 1.3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans who stopped re­ceiv­ing checks just three days after Christ­mas, after Con­gress chose not to ex­tend the pro­gram.

The meas­ure will con­tin­ue the be­ne­fits for three months and re­im­burse the long-term un­em­ployed for the weeks of lost be­ne­fits in Decem­ber and Janu­ary while Con­gress gets to work on a long-term solu­tion.

The vote ful­fills a prom­ise Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id made be­fore the close of the last con­gres­sion­al ses­sion to deal with the be­ne­fits in Janu­ary, after House Re­pub­lic­ans blocked an ex­ten­sion from be­ing in­cluded in the fi­nal budget bill and left town for the hol­i­days.

The meas­ure, sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev. — who rep­res­ent the two states with the highest un­em­ploy­ment rates in the na­tion — will have to clear a clo­ture hurdle on Monday, which means that five Re­pub­lic­ans will have to vote with the en­tire Demo­crat­ic caucus for the Sen­ate to pro­ceed to the bill.

But even if it clears the Sen­ate, the bill faces an up­hill climb in the House, where the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship has signaled op­pos­i­tion to ex­tend­ing the be­ne­fit without pay­ing for it.

“I think it’s go­ing to be a pretty tough sell,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said be­fore the hol­i­day re­cess.

House Speak­er John Boehner told re­port­ers last month that he would con­sider re­new­ing the be­ne­fits if Con­gress could off­set the cost. Demo­crats pushed hard in a me­dia blitz over the re­cess to bring at­ten­tion to the is­sue, hop­ing to ratchet up pres­sure on Re­pub­lic­ans to ac­cept an ex­ten­sion without an off­set. But Boehner’s po­s­i­tion has not changed, ac­cord­ing to spokes­man Mi­chael Steel.

Be­fore leav­ing for the hol­i­day, Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, D-Md., pro­posed us­ing sav­ings ex­pec­ted in the farm bill to pay for the ex­ten­sion, but Re­pub­lic­ans blocked that idea. The Sen­ate bill does not in­clude any off­sets, and Demo­crats, who view re­new­ing the be­ne­fits as an emer­gency, are re­luct­ant to put any such pay-fors on the table.

“There’s no secret back pock­et,” House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er told re­port­ers Fri­day when asked wheth­er Demo­crats were weigh­ing any po­ten­tial off­sets.

The Reed-Heller bill, which ex­tends be­ne­fits through March 31, has a $6.5 bil­lion price tag and sets up an­oth­er po­ten­tial show­down over the be­ne­fits that could co­in­cide with a con­gres­sion­al throw-down over the debt lim­it later this year. That might not be a bad omen, from the point of view of those de­pend­ing on the be­ne­fits, be­cause law­makers have yoked un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance and the debt ceil­ing to­geth­er be­fore. Con­gress paired the last ex­ten­sion — the one that ex­pired in Decem­ber — with the fisc­al-cliff le­gis­la­tion that passed in early 2013.

But the debt-lim­it fight may not come to a head for months, and the ma­jor­ity of those who lost their un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits on Dec. 28 had already been out of work for at least 26 weeks, re­ly­ing on state sup­port be­fore the fed­er­al funds kicked in.

Even ret­ro­act­ive le­gis­la­tion could come too late for some of the fam­il­ies who rely on the be­ne­fits, if the ex­ten­sion fight con­tin­ues to drag on, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers in both cham­bers are push­ing fam­il­ies to come for­ward with their stor­ies, hop­ing to in­crease the pres­sure on Re­pub­lic­ans to act.

“Let’s say the bliz­zard left 1.3 mil­lion people without money,” said Rep. Sander Lev­in, D-Mich., re­fer­ring to the storm that dumped snow on much of the na­tion Fri­day. “I think then there’d be a real­iz­a­tion that it’s an emer­gency.”

For now, with little lever­age of their own, House Demo­crats are bet­ting the com­bin­a­tion of swift Sen­ate pas­sage and those heart-rend­ing stor­ies from con­stitu­ents will per­suade Re­pub­lic­ans to take up the bill.

“I hope it will be passed by the Sen­ate,” Van Hol­len said. “That will provide some mo­mentum in the House. I think that can make it more dif­fi­cult for the speak­er to re­fuse to take ac­tion.”

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