Unemployment Insurance Plans Duel in Senate

The partisan stalemate over restoring lapsed emergency unemployment insurance benefits is expected to continue after Senate Republicans, skeptical of the offset in a new Democratic plan, unveiled their own proposal last week.  

“If [Democrats] want a UI extension, they have it,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is one of seven Republican sponsors of the bill, said just before unveiling the bill Thursday.  

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could seek to take up the Democrats' bill, sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., as soon as this week, aides said Friday.  

The Democrats’ plan would extend benefits for six months and offset the cost by using savings from the recently enacted farm bill.  

Democrats and Republicans have been duking it out over unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed ever since they expired last year. The chamber has failed twice to extend benefits, both times falling short of the 60 votes needed to advance legislation.  

Democrats see the issue as part of their message on addressing income inequality, which they hope resonates with voters in the November midterm elections.  

Republicans charge that Democrats do not want an agreement on the issue so they can continue to use it as a political cudgel to paint the GOP as not caring about the unemployed.  

Talk of action on extending unemployment insurance comes as the Department of Labor released its monthly unemployment report Friday, which said that the economy added 175,000 jobs, with an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent.  

Reid said the report underscores the need for Congress to extend benefits. He had promised to revisit the issue after Democrats came just one vote short of overcoming a GOP filibuster on an earlier effort .  

“Our economy continues to improve with the last month marking 48 consecutive months of private-sector job growth,” Reid said in a release. “While this is welcome news, unfortunately far too many continue to look for a job, especially in my home state. To help Americans looking for work, we should provide the lifeline of unemployment insurance to those who have lost their job through no fault of their own. We are one Republican vote away.”  

“Republicans should join Democrats to help those struggling to make ends meet and make job creating investments in areas like infrastructure and education,” Reid continued. “This is simple common sense, and I hope my Republican colleagues will agree.”  

But that last Republican will be difficult to win over given that the GOP has its own bill to rally around. In addition Republicans are unlikely to support the farm bill as an offset.  

“I still think you have the issue that it’s a 10-year offset for one year of spending,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who is Republican Conference chairman, said Thursday. “I think there are a lot of folks on our side that won’t consider that to be a real offset, not that that hasn’t been done before around here, but I think there will be some resistance to that.”  

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., agreed that the farm bill offset would not likely find support among Republicans. “That would be my guess,” Blunt said.  

He noted that Republicans are also interested in some reforms to the program in order to extend it. Democrats have preferred to act quickly to provide aid and then look to reform the program.  

The Republican measure 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 eliminate eligibility for receiving both UI benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance payments.  

The Republican bill also would make some reforms, 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.  

A senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats were still “digesting” the GOP proposal.  

Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Reed, welcomed the GOP bill and hopes that an agreement can reached. But the aide noted that there would likely be some opposition to the Republican measure.  

"This is vital to millions of Americans and would give the economy a boost," Unruh said. "That is why we've never stopped talking and trying to find a bipartisan solution. There is some good movement, but some of these policy provisions are real non-starters."  

It’s unclear exactly when the Senate would revisit the unemployment issue. The chamber is set to vote Monday evening on cloture on Carolyn B. McHugh, to be a United States Circuit judge for the 10th Circuit.  

Following that the Senate will vote on final passage of military sexual assault legislation sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.  

Then 28 Democrats will speak into Tuesday morning urging action on climate change.  

The Senate is then expected to take up child care block grant legislation. Senate Democratic aides said that unemployment insurance could be the following order of business.