The first part of the Democrats’ anti-poverty agenda stalled yesterday when legislation to resurrect long-term jobless legislation stalled in the Senate.
Debate on the issue ground to a halt after the Democratic majority offered to pay for a 10-month extension of unemployment benefits—then refused to allow Republicans to seek any changes to the bill. A vote never took place. Instead, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of “continually denigrating our economy, our president, and frankly, I believe, our country.”
Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, one of a half-dozen Republicans who helped advance the bill over an initial hurdle earlier in the week, said he hadn’t been consulted on any compromise. Echoing complaints by other members of his party, he said under Reid’s leadership he has been relegated to the sidelines. Indiana voters “didn’t send me here to be told just to sit down and forget it,” he said.
In lengthy remarks Wednesday, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said major legislation “is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the majority leader’s conference room and then dropped on the floor.” Republicans repeatedly warned reporters to expect gridlock if Reid again forced them to accept or decline a bill on his terms. That’s indeed what happened Thursday.
At issue was a struggle over emergency unemployment benefits that expired on Dec. 28, cutting off payments that amount to about $256 per week for more than 1.3 million long-term unemployed.
By midday Thursday, Reid expressed optimism about the chances for compromise, and Democratic officials said talks with Republicans were focused on a scaled-back program that would run through the late fall. The price tag—approximately $18 billion—would be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, ensuring deficits would not rise.
But the only Republican Reid included was fellow Nevadan Dean Heller. So, when Reid formally outlined the proposal and didn’t allow amendments, Republicans balked, and each side once again began accusing the other of refusing to compromise.
The deal was a compromise of sorts, though. Democrats this week initially sought a three-month renewal of benefits and opposed paying for it with cuts, adding $6.4 billion to the deficit.
Republicans countered that any legislation must be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Their proposals included delaying the so-called individual mandate to purchase health insurance under Obamacare, along with preventing illegal immigrants from claiming a certain type of tax credit for their children. They said either would pass easily, a claim Democrats did not dispute. But rather than exposing his rank and file to a politically hazardous vote, Reid made sure the amendments were not formally offered.
The expired law provided a maximum of 47 weeks of payments after an unemployed worker has exhausted state-funded benefits, usually 26 weeks. Thursday’s measure proposed a maximum of 31 weeks, officials said, based on a prior sliding scale. The first tier of additional benefits would be six weeks, generally available to all who used up their state eligibility. Additional weeks would be provided based on local unemployment rates: six weeks in states where unemployment is 6 percent or higher; nine weeks where joblessness is 7 percent or higher; and 10 weeks where unemployment is above 9 percent.
The cost would have been offset in part by extending a previously approved reduction in Medicare payments to providers, officials said, and in part by limiting or eliminating the ability of individuals on Social Security disability from also receiving unemployment benefits.
Reid gave Republicans a compromise—including a paid-for bill—but he didn’t include them in the process. And for that, Republicans bolted, as they said they would.
And the unemployment benefit program isn’t the only anti-poverty initiative lawmakers will grapple with this year. Following prompting by President Barack Obama, Democrats will likely take up an increase of the federal minimum wage next.
Liberals say extending emergency unemployment benefits passed during the recession is necessary to protect 1.3 million long-term unemployed no longer eligible for state benefits, plus hundreds of thousands more expected to lose state benefits in the coming months. In response to criticisms that the program pays people not to work, Democrats note recipients must demonstrate they’re seeking employment.
But conservatives point to studies showing that as benefits begin to run out, the number of people getting jobs skyrockets. The benefit program slightly increases the unemployment rate as people wait longer for better work—roughly 1 percent this past recession, according to the Cato Institute. While benefits allow people to wait for a more desirable job, employers frown on extended gaps in employment. The longer people wait, the more their skills deteriorate, and the less employable they become.
At issue in the Senate, then, is striking a balance between protecting those who legitimately can’t find work and encouraging the long-term unemployed to get back in the game, even if that requires taking a job they don’t want.