Road Map: Jobs Blame Game Has Staying Power

Posted April 12, 2010 at 6:28pm

Senate Democrats’ push to blame Republicans for delays in extending unemployment benefits is losing its oomph.

[IMGCAP(1)]While Republicans are indeed objecting to moving forward with a House-passed bill to extend jobless benefits for a month, Democrats appear to have missed or ignored opportunities to force the issue as well as take it off the table for the rest of the year.

Though Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scored a victory Monday evening in getting four Republicans to side with the Democrats to move forward, the measure has languished for two weeks as Reid and other Democratic Senate leaders made a calculation that it would be better to take a two-week recess than it would be to call the GOP’s bluff. The last unemployment benefit extension expired a week ago.

Meanwhile, a bill to extend unemployment benefits until Dec. 31 is held up over what one senior Senate Democratic aide called “an old-fashioned pissing match” between the House and the Senate over an unrelated issue of offsetting extensions of routine tax cuts.

Still, the GOP’s general lack of credibility on the issue — along with Senate Republicans’ lack of support for their own Sen. Jim Bunning’s (Ky.) filibuster of a similar bill just a month ago — seems to be keeping the Democrats’ drumbeat about GOP intransigence afloat.

Both the current GOP filibuster attempt and Bunning’s earlier effort revolved around trying to offset — or pay for — the cost of extending jobless benefits, a proposal that Reid considered and then rejected, largely because of opposition from House Democrats.

Senate Republicans have argued that they voted to stay in session for part of the recess to deal with the issue, and they have pointed the finger at Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for rejecting a deal they say they had with Reid.

Another senior Senate Democratic aide argued that “there was no enthusiasm” for keeping Senators in session to vote on unemployment benefits when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — who, unlike Bunning, had the backing of GOP leaders — attempted to get the bill paid for before Senators left town for two weeks on March 26.

“We don’t believe we could have gotten 60 votes going into the recess like that,” the aide said.

However, Republican aides have acknowledged that they were unlikely to hold their Members on such a politically dicey vote, whether it was held the weekend that the recess began or Monday night.

This issue is so sensitive for both parties that Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was careful to note Monday that Republicans support the extension of benefits. “Now that we’ve run out of money, do we want to keep spending or do we find a way for this generation to pay for that spending?” Kyl argued on the Senate floor. “And that’s what we’re talking about with extending unemployment benefits. Of course they need to be extended. Of course we’ll support that.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) told reporters Monday that no matter what path Democrats took, Republicans would have tried to block them. Asked why Democrats hadn’t made more progress on the long-term unemployment benefit extension, which is attached to a broader measure of tax extenders, Schumer said, ” Well, we certainly want to pass the yearlong [unemployment insurance] extension. It passed the House, and it’s passed the Senate. And we expect to pass it quite soon.”

He added, “We ought to put the blame where it belongs, which is the dilatory tactics on the other side of the aisle, whether it’s short-term or long-term UI extension.”

But even the Democrats’ own invited expert indicated the delay in the extension is causing long-term problems and that Congress should act on the long-term measure to avoid future problems.

In a conference call with Schumer and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) on Monday, Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project, said: “When Congress fails to extend the program, each week another 200,000 workers have little or no means to pay their bills or feed their families. And, unfortunately, there’s no way to sugarcoat that — that damaging impact. Even if benefits are paid retroactively — and that’s a process that can take weeks in some states — the impact on these families really can’t be overstated,” Emsellem said. “In addition, the state unemployment agencies, which are already operating on maximum capacity, they’re falling farther and farther behind in paying benefits on time. So the latest two-week interruption of the program makes it even more difficult for states to make a dent in their huge backlog and address all the other major priorities they’re facing in dealing with the unemployment program.”

Emsellem then urged the House and Senate to complete the conference on the longer-term extension “without delay.”

Stabenow acknowledged that unrelated “pay-fors” were holding up the long-term benefits’ extension.

“A couple of changes have to be made because of changes that were pay-fors that were used other places. So, they’re working through that, and it will be done quickly,” she said.

A House Democratic aide acknowledged the current impasse over how to pay for the bill, noting some of the offsets used in the recently passed health care reform measure were also contenders as offsets for tax extenders. The aide said the universe of pay-fors is limited and that Senate Democrats will likely have to get over their reluctance to consider a tax on “carried interest” income that Wall Street fund managers accrue for their services.

“If we’re wedded to the structure of [pay-as-you-go rules] … there’s a point at which they’re going to have to come to the table on that,” the aide said. “It’s good, sensible tax policy.”

But even with the win on the unemployment extension on Monday, the Senate is likely to spend all week on the bill — turning a two-week delay into three weeks. And it’s a process they may have to turn around and repeat in another three weeks when benefits expire again May 5.