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Unemployment Extension: Senate Passage Puts Bill in Boehner's Court

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Senate’s vote late Monday to pass an unemployment extension doesn’t mean the more than 2 million people who have lost their benefits can rest easy — the House isn’t likely to touch the issue until the end of the month, if at all.  

While a band of House moderates have written to leaders asking them to consider the issue promptly — either with the Senate’s bill or an alternative — Speaker John A. Boehner has been clear that the Senate measure fails to meet his tests of creating jobs and being fiscally responsible. The Ohio Republican hasn’t put forward an alternative of his own.  

The real question for House Republicans seems to be this — is there something they can get out of the White House and congressional Democrats in return for releasing benefits to the unemployed? Boehner and House Republican leaders have been pounding the table for the past year on any number of House-passed bills rolling back regulations, boosting energy exploration or overhauling government programs for things such as job training. But the Senate has become a killing ground for GOP bills, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blocking an effort by Senate Republicans to simply hold votes on many of those House GOP proposals last week.  

Republicans had offered to put the bills into one smorgasbord amendment but the Democrats ultimately rejected that approach, too, given that they already had the votes in hand for a bipartisan bill hammered out over months.  

Having gotten a bill through the Senate on a 59-38 vote Monday, Democrats have less incentive to compromise.  

The broad, partisan power play leaves the unemployed held hostage to both procedure and the legislative calendar, with lawmakers headed toward a two-week recess as early as Thursday.  

A majority of House Republicans believe long-term unemployment insurance is not necessary, members and aides said, and so far, Democrats and advocates have yet to show that inaction will lead to political repercussions.  

A senior Obama administration official told CQ Roll Call that the White House would be willing to have constructive talks with Republicans on an unemployment extension. But the official cautioned the White House hasn’t seen Republicans propose anything that could pass the Senate.  

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said in an interview last week that despite Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s assistance passing the bill in the Senate, his influence will not do much persuade Boehner, his home-state colleague.  

“I don’t anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of support amongst most members in the House as far as doing anything about the unemployment insurance, unless we’re assured that it actually is going to create jobs. On its own, I don’t think it does that,” he said.  

Chabot said he would potentially consider the extension if other jobs-related legislation were attached to it, for instance a measure spurring action on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. A few other House Republicans have expressed similar sentiments.  

Still, within the GOP conference pressure to act on the extension is minimal. Of the 233 members, just seven signed on to a letter in December and again on Monday asking Boehner to act. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., spearheaded the latest communiqué, which was also signed by Reps. Chris Gibson, Michael G. Grimm and Peter T. King of New York; Jon Runyan and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey; and Joe Heck of Nevada. If those seven joined all 200 Democrats in voting for an extension, it still would not have enough votes to pass.  

“As many Americans continue to struggle without benefits, we respectfully request that the House immediately consider this bill or a similar measure to restore unemployment benefits to struggling Americans,” they wrote.  

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call finds Gibson, one of the letter’s signatories, in a Tilts Republican race and Grimm and Heck in Lean Republican contests this fall. The others are not considered to be in difficult races. If the House does act, it will be for the benefit of those few vulnerable House Republicans. Boehner has been careful to leave the door open to action, and his spokesman, Michael Steel, reiterated his position that the extension is not out of the question.  

Steel told reporters Monday that the House GOP is “willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs,” and complained about Senate Democrats dismissing the House’s proposals.  

“The speaker has said since before Christmas that we are open to looking at extending emergency UI again — as long as it is paid-for, and does something to create more private-sector jobs,” Steel added.  

Boehner has rarely allowed a bill on the floor that passes with a majority of his conference opposed. Doing so in this case could invite criticism for Boehner and his leadership team — problems more politically harmful than the current complaints coming from the left.  

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