Policy

Jobless Benefits Split House GOP, Democrats

Levin gave an impromptu press conference on jobless benefits in the Senate press gallery Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Ways and Means ranking Democrat Sander M. Levin wants an unemployment insurance extension, doesn't want to pay for it, and wants it now.

With a handful of Senate Republicans voting with Democrats on Tuesday to advance legislation restoring lapsed unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans, Levin called on Speaker John A. Boehner to pass a temporary extension now and work out how to pay for it later.

"There is a present emergency," Levin said during an impromptu press conference in the Senate press gallery. "This is not something theoretical."

Levin said he wanted the House to pass the bill currently under consideration in the Senate, which would extend the expired unemployment insurance for three months without an offset, and then work toward a larger, longer-term solution that could include an offset.

"Historically," the Michigan Democrat said, "unemployment insurance has not been offset." He noted that there had been "a few exceptions" — $55 billion of the $265 billion price tag has been offset since the program came into existence in 2008 — but Levin said this was an emergency, and "emergencies, basically, have not been offset in this institution."

But House Republicans don't appear willing to consider an unemployment insurance extension without paying for it — and they want a broader plan to address unemployment.

On Tuesday, Boehner reaffirmed his position.

“One month ago," the Ohio Republican said in a statement, "I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan."

Boehner said if President Barack Obama did offer a plan with an offset, he'd be "happy to discuss it."

But Levin called that reasoning "not satisfactory" and "an excuse or a reason for inaction."

"I don't think we should play ping pong with the lives and the lifelines of the unemployed of this country," Levin said. "So I don't think we should say it's somebody else's obligation. I don't think it should be offset. If the speaker thinks so, let him propose it, which he hasn't."

"Why should anyone shift the responsibility?" Levin asked.

Levin said Republicans and Democrats had been "at loggerheads" regarding these sorts of economic issues, and a three-month extension would allow both sides to sit down and figure out a course ahead.

"The speaker's in the same position as I am and every House member," Levin said. "He should not throw the ball to anybody else. Ohio is suffering like every other state in terms of the number of people unemployed looking for work. And so, it isn't up to the White House; it's up to the speaker, I think, to look into those lives of the people of his state and the country who are desperately looking for work."

However, some House and Senate Democrats have floated the notion of using a pending farm bill conference report — which would cut billions from the deficit — as a way to offset the cost of an unemployment benefits extension.