Who’s Playing Games With Unemployment Insurance?

“They actually don’t want to get this done,” Republican Sen. Dean Heller says.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) speaks to members of the press as he is on his way for a vote January 6, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
March 12, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s been days since a cadre of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans re­leased their own le­gis­la­tion to ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits, and they’ve yet to get the pos­it­ive re­ac­tion they were seek­ing.

Dis­cus­sions between Re­pub­lic­ans and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Is­land, who is lead­ing the Demo­crat­ic ef­forts, are on­go­ing. But Re­pub­lic­ans say Demo­crats are show­ing little will­ing­ness to take up their bill.

“I think they’re go­ing to re­ject it and that would be a shame,” says Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who has stood with Demo­crats since late last year in work­ing to find a way to ex­tend the in­sur­ance pro­gram for the es­tim­ated 2 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans who have lost their long-term be­ne­fits since Dec. 28.

The GOP bill “rep­res­ents a great deal of move­ment on our part,” said GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “It’s com­pletely reas­on­able, and it would provide a five-month paid-for ex­ten­sion with re­forms in the pro­gram. I re­gret to say that so far, the Demo­crat­ic re­sponse has not been as pos­it­ive as I would have hoped and ex­pec­ted. I really don’t see any more ma­jor con­ces­sions com­ing from the Re­pub­lic­an side. We’ve put our best of­fer on the table with a few tweaks.”

Here is the frus­tra­tion for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans: Most of their le­gis­la­tion is cribbed from pre­vi­ous Demo­crat­ic bills. They ar­gue that the is­sue now seems to be not the con­tent of the ex­ten­sion bill but the party iden­ti­fic­a­tion of those lis­ted at the top of it.

“I think that’s the height of hy­po­crisy, in my opin­ion, that all this clam­or­ing that they have for the un­em­ployed — most who have lost their jobs with no fault of their own — is now bottled up be­cause they don’t like our plan even though it’s a plan that they’ve sup­por­ted in the past,” Heller said Tues­day.

The Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­al to pay for the short-term ex­ten­sion in­cludes two off­sets that Demo­crats have ac­cep­ted be­fore: pen­sion-smooth­ing, a pay-for cham­pioned by Reed just weeks ago; and pre­vent­ing in­di­vidu­als who col­lect un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance from also re­ceiv­ing dis­ab­il­ity, an amend­ment pushed by Sen. Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, that Demo­crats had already agreed to in­clude as an amend­ment to their new­est bill.

The third Re­pub­lic­an pay-for builds on one in­cluded in the Ry­an-Mur­ray budget agree­ment, which passed both cham­bers eas­ily in Decem­ber. That off­set would ex­tend cus­toms user fees — funds paid for by air­line pas­sen­gers go­ing through cus­toms in the United States to off­set the costs of in­spec­tion — for an ad­di­tion­al year. Un­der the GOP plan, the fee pro­gram would now ex­pire in 2024.

“Every pay-for in there they’ve sup­por­ted in the past, they just don’t like it today,” a vis­ibly frus­trated Heller said Tues­day. “They’ve liked it in the past, but they don’t like it today. We have sev­en spon­sors on that, so we’re giv­ing them all the votes they need — all the votes they need — and they still re­ject it be­cause they don’t want to get it done. They’d rather have the polit­ic­al talk­ing point. This is proof in the pud­ding that all they want is the polit­ics of it, they ac­tu­ally don’t want to get this done.”

Reed spokes­man Chip Un­ruh called foul, ar­guing that Re­pub­lic­ans are for the first time ask­ing for off­sets for a five-month un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion, which, be­cause it is ret­ro­act­ive, would ac­tu­ally ex­pire after just two months, giv­ing Con­gress little time to find a longer-term solu­tion. “If they’re frus­trated, ima­gine how the 2 mil­lion people who lost their be­ne­fits [feel].”¦ The bot­tom line is we’ve bent over back­wards to find a way to get this done,” Un­ruh said Tues­day.

An­oth­er Demo­crat­ic con­cern, he said, is that the Re­pub­lic­an bill would re­form the over­all un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance pro­gram. The meas­ure would re­quire fed­er­al or state agen­cies (or both) to de­term­ine why be­ne­fi­ciar­ies have been un­able to find em­ploy­ment; would pro­hib­it “mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires” as well as those re­ceiv­ing dis­ab­il­ity to take in the be­ne­fits; and would re­quire re­cip­i­ents to ac­cept any “suit­able work” offered to them.

Un­ruh ar­gued that the bills’ re­forms would pre­vent mil­lions from re­ceiv­ing the be­ne­fits in the fu­ture, but did not elab­or­ate.

At the same time, Demo­crat­ic out­side groups are send­ing some friendly fire in the way of Re­pub­lic­ans in­volved in the ne­go­ti­ations, which has only heightened their sense that the un­em­ploy­ment talks are more about polit­ics than find­ing a solu­tion.

The AFL-CIO and AF­SCME ran Face­book and on­line ads against Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., hop­ing to prod him in­to sign­ing onto Demo­crat­ic le­gis­la­tion. Amer­ic­ans United for Change, a group that pro­motes Demo­crat­ic causes, re­cently ran a small tele­vi­sion ad against Kirk as well.

“I’ve al­ways been wor­ried that this was largely a polit­ic­al ex­er­cise led by Harry [Re­id],” Kirk said, not­ing the ad and polling that have run against him, even as he’s joined oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans in ne­go­ti­at­ing with Demo­crats to find a solu­tion.

Amer­ic­ans United for Change also sent about two dozen act­iv­ists to Port­man’s of­fice to de­liv­er a pe­ti­tion ur­ging him to sup­port the bill. The group com­mis­sioned a Pub­lic Policy Polling sur­vey on Kirk and Port­man in their home states, re­mind­ing their con­stitu­ents that they voted against “against re­in­stat­ing un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits to 1.8 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans who are out of work.”

Port­man called the Amer­ic­ans United for Change sur­vey a push poll, not­ing that it said noth­ing about his work with Demo­crats to find a solu­tion. The sur­vey was con­duc­ted be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an bill was an­nounced to the pub­lic.

Paul J. Lav­raka, a former pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation for Pub­lic Opin­ion Re­search, ar­gued that the sur­vey couldn’t tech­nic­ally be called a push poll be­cause of its small sample size. “The idea of per­suad­ing 500 people is ludicrous,” he said, ar­guing that 500 in­di­vidu­als are un­likely to sway an elec­tion.

But Port­man is more con­cerned about the mes­sage that the sur­vey is send­ing to his con­stitu­ents, even just 525 of them. “I think that was just an un­fair ques­tion,” Port­man said Tues­day. “So, of course you’re go­ing to get a re­ac­tion that’s dif­fer­ent than what would be an hon­est way to de­scribe it, which is that I’m for ex­tend­ing [the be­ne­fits] short-term as long as it’s paid for, as long as we are com­mit­ted to re­form­ing the pro­gram so that it works bet­ter for people to get skills. If that had been ex­plained, I would have felt dif­fer­ent about it.”

Amer­ic­ans United for Change spokes­wo­man Lauren Wein­er dis­puted Port­man’s char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of the sur­vey, de­fend­ing PPP as “one of the most ac­cur­ate” polling out­fits in the coun­try. “I think that it’s in­ter­est­ing that they’re ac­tu­ally ques­tion­ing the poll and not the res­ults … if they don’t feel that a ma­jor­ity of Ohioans or Buck­eyes sup­port ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment,” Wein­er said.

As for why the group has singled out Port­man and Kirk among their col­leagues — the ma­jor­ity of whom have shown no in­terest in passing an un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion of any kind — Wein­er called them the two “most per­suad­able” Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate. The group is hope­ful, she said, that a little pres­sure could get them to sign on to the next ex­ten­sion that makes it to the floor.

Un­ruh agreed, though he said he was un­aware of any activ­it­ies by out­side Demo­crat­ic groups to in­flu­ence Re­pub­lic­ans on the is­sue. “Sen­at­or Reed has tried to work in good faith; I think some of his col­leagues are feel­ing the heat from back home and for good reas­on. A broad swath of people want to see this done,” Un­ruh said.

But the ac­tions of Amer­ic­ans United for Change, the AFL-CIO, and oth­er groups, coupled with the luke­warm re­cep­tion Re­pub­lic­ans re­ceived after an­noun­cing their own pro­pos­al last week, has many of the sev­en Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors ne­go­ti­at­ing over the is­sue con­cerned that they’re locked in a lose-lose situ­ation.

Though Reed has con­tin­ued to lead bi­par­tis­an talks, and both sides say they are hope­ful that they’ll make pro­gress, the sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans in­volved say they be­lieve Re­id is re­spons­ible for the lack of pro­gress so far.

“What that sig­nals to me is they’re not really look­ing for a deal,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who signed on to the Re­pub­lic­an bill and has sup­por­ted pre­vi­ous Demo­crat­ic fixes in re­cent months. “And it may just be as simple as, those that we are dis­cuss­ing with are really try­ing to make something hap­pen but that you’ve got a ma­jor­ity lead­er who feels that it’s in his best polit­ic­al in­terest or that of his team to keep this is­sue alive.”

“I mean, if I were sit­ting out there and one of those that was im­pacted, my be­ne­fits had been cut off and I kind of watched this back-and-forth, back-and-forth, with no real re­solve in sight, I’d be pretty frus­trated,” she ad­ded.

Still, Port­man and oth­ers are hope­ful that the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ations will res­ult in some kind of com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion. As talks con­tin­ue, the pro­spects for a bill that will win a 60-vote ma­jor­ity this week, as Demo­crats ini­tially hoped, is in­creas­ingly un­likely.

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