Senate Republicans Flip the Script on Unemployment

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to reporters after attending the weekly Democrat policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on January 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Senate Democrats gathered at a luncheon to discuss various issues inlcluding minimum wage and unemployment insurance.
National Journal
Elahe Izad and Michael Catalini
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Elahe Izad Michael Catalini
Jan. 7, 2014, 4:17 p.m.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, tired of play­ing by the Demo­crat­ic script, are plan­ning to flip the story line on their op­pon­ents — and they want to use the bill ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance to do it.

Angry after Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id changed Sen­ate rules last year to lim­it their pro­ced­ur­al weapons, Re­pub­lic­ans are tak­ing a new ap­proach. On Tues­day, six GOP sen­at­ors voted with the Demo­crat­ic caucus to pro­ceed to de­bate on the bill, which would ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits to the long-term job­less for three months.

The move was a genu­ine sur­prise. And it floored Demo­crats.

“I guess be­ing Ir­ish, I’m al­ways ex­pect­ing the worst,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Is­land Demo­crat who sponsored the meas­ure along with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. “So yeah, I was sur­prised. But that might be more cul­tur­al than polit­ic­al.”

Demo­crats ex­pec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans to block the bill, ful­filling what aides have called Re­id’s “fa­vor­ite nar­rat­ive” about the GOP: that they’re ob­struc­tion­ists.

In­stead, Re­pub­lic­ans have thrown the is­sue back to Re­id, who must now fa­cil­it­ate a com­prom­ise pro­cess — in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments — if the bill is to win ap­prov­al.

Just be­cause six Re­pub­lic­ans joined Demo­crats to let the bill pro­ceed on Tues­day doesn’t mean the ex­ten­sion is headed for pas­sage later this week. In fact, a num­ber of those Re­pub­lic­ans have said they won’t sup­port it un­less the meas­ure is paid for. GOP law­makers could force a second clo­ture vote and send the bill down — un­less Re­id gives them a reas­on not to.

“In a sense it’s call­ing his bluff,” said Sen. Dan Coats, the In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­an who was among those who voted for clo­ture, to the sur­prise of many.

“This was a vote to move to de­bate, move to amend­ment,” he said. “If Harry Re­id wants to shut that down, start the New Year just like he ended the old year, then that’s his choice.”

The three-month ex­ten­sion was the Demo­crats’ open­ing bid, with Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing House Speak­er John Boehner, say­ing they would sup­port an ex­ten­sion only if it con­tained an off­set. Demo­crats have long balked at pay­ing for the fed­er­al pro­gram, ar­guing that it is an emer­gency meas­ure that hasn’t been paid for throughout much of its ex­ist­ence. They also ar­gue it puts money dir­ectly in­to the eco­nomy.

“Cer­tainly for this three months, this def­in­itely should not be paid for,” Re­id said. “If they can come up with some — they, mean­ing the Re­pub­lic­ans — something that’s reas­on­able for a year­long ex­ten­sion, we’ll take a look at it.”

In­deed, the con­ver­sa­tion about an off­set has be­gun, des­pite Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion.

Re­id ruled out Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s open­ing of­fer, which paid for the ex­ten­sion by delay­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act’s in­di­vidu­al man­date for one year. Mc­Con­nell sought to get a vote on his amend­ment Tues­day, but Re­id blocked it.

Now Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are pro­pos­ing a bevy of off­sets and amend­ments — and call­ing on Re­id to let them have a vote. GOP pro­pos­als are all over the place. One from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who voted for clo­ture, would pay for the be­ne­fits and roll back cuts to mil­it­ary pen­sions in the budget deal by re­quir­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity num­bers for any chil­dren claimed for ad­di­tion­al child tax cred­its.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an, offered an amend­ment that in­cludes a pro­vi­sion to ex­empt the long-term un­em­ployed from Obama­care’s in­di­vidu­al man­date. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ar­iz., wants to tight­en re­stric­tions on people eli­gible for both un­em­ploy­ment and dis­ab­il­ity in­sur­ance.

Re­id has signaled he may be open to al­low­ing amend­ments, say­ing “we’ll take a look if they have something that’s ser­i­ous.”

But it is un­clear what “something that’s ser­i­ous” may be. The open­ing lines from either side — an Obama­care-man­date delay from Re­pub­lic­ans and clos­ing tax loop­holes from Demo­crats — are non­starters. “Right now, every­one should un­der­stand, the low-hanging fruit is gone. We’ve scav­enged every place we could go,” Re­id said.

Still, the de­bate is front and cen­ter. Pres­id­ent Obama spoke in the East Room on Tues­day, call­ing on law­makers to pass the Sen­ate bill. And he has phoned law­makers on the Hill, such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who spoke with him about off­sets and the need for a job-train­ing com­pon­ent.

Collins, who voted for clo­ture, may with­hold sup­port for fi­nal pas­sage sans an off­set, she said. “It’s un­der­stand­ably dis­turb­ing to many mem­bers of our caucus to vi­ol­ate the budget we just passed, so I think we need a con­cer­ted ef­fort to find an off­set, and that is un­der­way,” she said. “I’ve had con­ver­sa­tions with a couple of Demo­crats about the de­sirab­il­ity of a pay-for.”

The Reed-Heller ex­ten­sion would ap­ply ret­ro­act­ively to the 1.3 mil­lion who lost be­ne­fits Dec. 28. People qual­i­fy for the be­ne­fits once they ex­haust state-based aid, which runs 26 weeks in most places. A year­long ex­ten­sion would cost $25 bil­lion over 10 years, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice, and des­pite the ef­forts of Demo­crats, didn’t make it in­to the fi­nal budget deal. A three-month ex­ten­sion would cost about $6.5 bil­lion.

“Cer­tainly we have to be very care­ful with what we do,” said Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash. “We don’t want to take out of one hand and put it in the oth­er.”

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