Unemployment Deal Falls Flat, Putting Senate Back in Irons

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 21: People stand in a line that stretched around the block to enter a job fair held at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), on March 21, 2012 in New York City. More than 600 people registered to attend the job fair and meet potential employers.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson and Michael Catalini
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Fawn Johnson Michael Catalini
Jan. 9, 2014, 2:34 p.m.

Sen­ate dis­cus­sions on un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance have con­tin­ued long past what any­one ex­pec­ted, with Demo­crat­ic lead­ers say­ing at one point on Thursday that they were on the brink of a deal.

But hours later, it be­came clear the pro­pos­al had fallen flat among the Re­pub­lic­ans it was craf­ted to at­tract, stalling any mo­mentum the is­sue had taken on throughout the week.

“I think they’re a long way from it,” said Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t sup­port­ing the off­sets pro­posed by Sens. Dean Heller and Jack Reed to pay for a one-year ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits — im­pos­ing se­quester-like budget cuts for an­oth­er year.

As de­tails of the pro­pos­al cir­cu­lated, it be­came clear that some Re­pub­lic­ans con­sider the pay-for in the Demo­crats’ deal as fake as Mono­poly money. “It’s a gim­micky way of do­ing it,” said Cornyn, who won’t sup­port it. “We spend money now and we’ll get re­li­gion later on.”

The res­ult is that Demo­crats are plan­ning to put both the cur­rent three-month meas­ure as well as a pro­posed one-year, paid-for ex­ten­sion on the Sen­ate floor without Re­pub­lic­an sup­port, ac­cord­ing to a seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide. Ab­sent some agree­ment, neither is likely to move for­ward.

House GOP lead­ers, mean­while, aren’t ex­pect­ing to have to ad­dress un­em­ploy­ment be­cause they don’t be­lieve the Sen­ate will reach a deal. To that end, House Speak­er John Boehner re­it­er­ated Thursday that House Re­pub­lic­ans are will­ing to ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits on two con­di­tions: that they are paid for and that the le­gis­la­tion in­clude something to cre­ate private-sec­tor jobs.

The big news when Boehner offered these same con­di­tions a month ago was that he wasn’t flat-out say­ing, “No.” Yet he may need to go no fur­ther, if the deal falls flat in the Sen­ate.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are ac­tu­ally try­ing to ac­com­mod­ate Boehner’s first con­di­tion, which has been echoed by Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. To pay for a year-long ex­ten­sion, Demo­crats had pro­posed con­tinu­ing the across-the-board se­quester budget caps for an­oth­er year and lim­it­ing the num­ber of weeks some job­less be­ne­fi­ciar­ies would re­ceive aid.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t bit­ing. But even if they did, Boehner’s second con­di­tion could be the real bo­gey­man. Earli­er this week, the speak­er’s of­fice put out a state­ment of­fer­ing three pro­pos­als to “put people back to work.” All were non­starters for Demo­crats and the ad­min­is­tra­tion: cre­at­ing new ex­emp­tions un­der Obama­care, ap­prov­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline, and en­act­ing an en­ergy-reg­u­la­tion bill that the White House has threatened to veto. It re­mains to be seen wheth­er there is any ac­cept­able GOP job-cre­at­ing le­gis­la­tion that Demo­crats could ac­cept to be paired with an un­em­ploy­ment ex­ten­sion.

It is worth re­call­ing, however, that the Sen­ate began its de­bate with these kinds of laugh­ers, too. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s first re­quest when the Sen­ate took up the un­em­ploy­ment ex­ten­sion on Tues­day was that the in­di­vidu­al man­date un­der Obama­care be post­poned for one year. Every­one knew Demo­crats would flatly re­ject that sug­ges­tion. On the Demo­crat­ic side, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id ini­tially asked for a three-month, $6.5 bil­lion ex­ten­sion with no off­sets, which was a non­starter for Re­pub­lic­ans.

With open­ing shots out of the way, law­makers began con­ver­sa­tions in earn­est over how to get a bill passed. But win­ning over enough Re­pub­lic­ans to con­tin­ue to fi­nal pas­sage has proven to be an al­most im­possible hurdle. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are so angry with Re­id for re­fus­ing to al­low a full-fledged amend­ment pro­cess on the bill that many will not vote for a Reed/Heller deal if it is the only game in town.

“This still doesn’t solve the ba­sic prob­lem that Re­pub­lic­ans have 24 amend­ments, al­most all of which would im­prove the bill. Sen­at­or Re­id’s got­ten in­to a bad habit in­to shut­ting out any amend­ments,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Re­pub­lic­an, said late Thursday that she hadn’t been briefed on the dis­cus­sions about how to pay for the ex­ten­sion. Murkowski was one of six Re­pub­lic­ans who voted to al­low the un­em­ploy­ment meas­ure to pro­ceed on Tues­day, and her lack of a brief­ing was an in­dic­a­tion that per­haps few Re­pub­lic­ans have been con­sul­ted on the is­sue.

“I don’t want to be un­sym­path­et­ic, but I just don’t want to auto­mat­ic­ally ad­vance it with a rub­ber stamp,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, among the strongest ad­voc­ates of ex­tend­ing long-term un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits even without an off­set, also had not been briefed on the de­tails of the un­em­ploy­ment deal. Har­kin in­dic­ated he would not be com­fort­able with se­quest­ra­tion budget levels for an­oth­er year. He is also a lead ne­go­ti­at­or on the om­ni­bus ap­pro­pri­ations bill set to be voted on next week, which is abid­ing by the new budget caps. The ne­go­ti­ations are hard enough un­der those con­straints, let alone the even more aus­tere cli­mate Demo­crats are dis­cuss­ing.

Still, Har­kin said he would be amen­able to pay­ing for the ex­ten­sion, as long as the off­sets don’t do harm else­where.

“There’s a lot of games be­ing played around here,” he said. “If there’s some place that they can off­set it without do­ing any harm, fine.”

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