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Senate Pushes Ahead on Effort to Extend Unemployment Benefits

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Reed, right, one of the five Republicans and five Democrats who hammered out the deal on extending unemployment insurance benefits over months of talks.

Senate Democrats are forging ahead with a bipartisan bill extending emergency unemployment insurance benefits, despite Speaker John A. Boehner slamming it as unworkable.

It doesnt change the dynamic, a senior Senate Democratic aide said of Boehners criticism. The Ohio Republican torched the bill on Wednesday, citing a letter from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies that warned the Senate unemployment bill would take most states one to three months to implement and would create new bureaucratic requirements that would be virtually impossible to enforce retroactively.

The only purpose the letter had was to give [Boehner] a fake excuse to oppose the bill, the aide continued.

Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez also wrote to Senate leaders reassuring them that the bill can be implemented.

I am confident that there are workable solutions for all of the concerns raised by NASWA, Perez wrote.

And the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill sets up a Republican-vs.-Republican dynamic, given that Democrats appear unified on the issue. It pits the likes of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, against Boehner.

An aide to Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich said he hasnt taken a position on the legislation, but said the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services agrees with the sentiment in the letter from the NASWA.

An aide to Sen. Dean Heller, who helped author the measure, said Friday that the Nevada Republican expects the Senate to pass the negotiated proposal in the coming week and hopes the House takes up the measure or passes its own proposal to conference with the Senate. Heller is one of five Republicans and five Democrats who hammered out the deal over months of talks.

He believes that these several senators worked together diligently to get something that was paid for and could pass the Senate, the Heller aide said. He doesnt see implementing [the bill] retroactively as ideal, but he thinks the issues that were raised are surmountable.

Hellers comments were the latest from him and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who have been leading the push for restoring the benefits, which expired in late December. They represent the two states with the highest unemployment rates.

The Democratic aide said Democrats would continue to try and pressure Republicans to act, with more than 2 million people cut off since the extension lapsed.

But there is no enthusiasm among House GOP leaders to act, and the bill is not likely to move quickly, if at all, assuming it passes the Senate.

Leadership aides said they would rather Congress focus on legislation they say will create jobs, instead of temporarily propping up those out of work. And Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., made no mention of the issue when he named a list of must-do items Friday afternoon.

Under one scenario, the House could add some of their jobs proposals to the Senate measure or something similar. But many House Republicans have said they are opposed to moving any long-term unemployment insurance extension because the unemployment rate has dropped.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rebutted the GOP, calling Republicans extreme for not extending the aid.

Despite the urgency of the issue for Democrats, it wont be the first order of business. The Senate is expected to first focus on the Ukraine aid package. And Congress also faces an end-of-month deadline to spare doctors from a deep cut in Medicare payments.

Senior Senate Republican aides conceded the bill likely has enough votes to get through the chamber. But they questioned the value of passing an unemployment insurance extension measure that Boehner does not support.

Republicans have complained the Democrats are simply looking for an issue for the midterms, and said Democrats unwillingness to respond to Boehners concerns only buttresses their point.

A senior Senate Democratic aide dismissed the charge that Democrats are only interested in political gain.

The aide pointed to the inclusion of provisions in the bill that Republicans insisted on in order to win their support, including a language that would end unemployment insurance payments for individual making $1 million or more a year.

Republican proponents pointed out that the entire Senate, including Democrats, supported the millionaires language in an April 2011 vote.

Under the agreement, benefits would be extended for five months. The measure would be paid for by a combination offsets including temporarily reducing companies pension payments also known as pension smoothing extending U.S. Customs and Border Protection user fees through 2024.

In addition to the millionaire provision, the bill also requires individuals receiving emergency unemployment compensation be eligible for enhanced, personalized assessments and referrals to reemployment services after a certain amount of time receiving benefits.

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