Unemployment Benefits Extension Vote Likely Delayed

Roughly 2 million workers whose unemployment insurance benefits have expired will likely have to wait until late March or early April for the Senate to vote again on an extension, Democrats and Republicans said. A vote this week doesn't appear in the cards with a couple of days left in the week before the Senate leaves for a weeklong recess and differences remaining over the length and the offset for an extension. “It’s highly unlikely,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is part of negotiations with Democrats, agreed. “Probably pretty slim to none,” Heller said of the chance of action this week. But he held out hope that there could be action in the next Senate work period, which includes the last week of March and the first two weeks of April. “I would hope so,” Heller said. “I’m not giving up. I’m just frustrated at this point.” Nevada has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, 9 percent, only surpassed by Rhode Island at 9.3 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has also been involved in the talks, said “We are just hung up , it’s unfortunate.” Heller was critical of the latest Democratic plan, championed by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., which would extend benefits for six months and offset the cost by using savings from the recently enacted farm bill. Republicans believe that the farm bill savings may never come through, in part because commodity prices appear to be lower than initially forecast, which could throw off the Congressional Budget Office’s savings estimate of the bill — $16.6 billion over 10 years. Heller recently unveiled a Republican proposal that would extend benefits for five months, according to a release. The cost of the proposal would be offset by a combination of temporarily reducing companies’ pension payments — also known as pension smoothing — extending U.S. Customs and Border Protection user fees through 2024 and eliminating eligibility for receiving both UI benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance payments. “Our pay-fors have been used as pay-fors in the past ... accepted by both sides,” Heller said. For example, pension smoothing was used as an offset for the surface transportation bill enacted in 2012. “If they want to get this done, they have an opportunity to do it,” Heller added, noting that in addition to him there are six other Republican co-sponsors to the bill. In a nod to two prior Democratic efforts to pass extensions that both stalled after falling short of the 60 votes need to advance the measures, Reed noted that Republicans have had chances to join with Democrats to act. “They’ve had several chances before to deliver and they haven’t,” Reed said. Some Republicans have charged that Democrats would rather have the issue to beat up Republicans politically than come to a negotiated solution. Democrats argue that the issue is one of the more recent examples of Republican obstruction in the Senate and shows their insensitivity to the urgent needs of the long-term unemployed. Heller said that he spoke about the matter on Tuesday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has made the issue a priority, and both Heller and Reed said negotiations would continue. “He seems optimistic,” Heller said of the majority leader. The Republican bill also would make some changes, including requiring that applicants be assessed by the appropriate state or federal agency to determine why they remain unemployed and to identify steps the individual should take to improve employment prospects, such as enrollment in a job training program. The bill would also strengthen requirements to ensure that benefits go to those actively looking for work and those who truly want to return to the workforce. And individuals would be barred from receiving benefits if they fail to accept offers of suitable work or if they refuse to apply for suitable work referred to them by a state employment agency. The measure also ensures that federal unemployment resources are not being used to provide benefits to millionaires. Heller said that changes are an important component to getting Republican support. The bill includes “needed reforms,” Heller said. “We’ve been doing this for five years. If we haven’t done the reform in five years when are we going to do it? And that’s why we are trying to get the reforms in now.” A Reed aide recently said that while Democrats appreciate the bill, some of its provisions are “non-starters.” The majority leader Tuesday reiterated that he needs one just more Republican to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles to pass a Democratic plan. Republicans blocked an earlier effort to extend the emergency benefits in February. “As you know we are only vote away from passing the unemployment insurance,” Reid said. “If we get that one vote we can move on it fairly quickly. But we do need that vote. At this stage we don’t have that assurance. But Jack and I are working on that.” But getting the last Republican seems difficult at best with the GOP rallying around its own bill. In the meantime, more and more people are getting dropped off the rolls, having exhausted their benefits.