Senate extends unemployment insurance. Why such a tough sell in the House?

The Senate voted 59 to 38 to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed. But House Republican leaders say the measure addresses only symptoms of joblessness, not the cause.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, here speaking at a recent news conference on Capitol Hill, says the House is willing to look at extending unemployment insurance as long as the measure includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs.

More than three months after emergency federal jobless benefits expired, the US Senate Monday approved a five-month extension. But people who need those funds to fill their gas tank or pay their rent while they look for work are not out of the woods yet. The bipartisan bill, which passed 59 to 38 with the support of six Republicans, faces stiff opposition from Republican gatekeepers in the House.

Why does the House GOP dislike this idea, which a majority of Americans support? Supporters say the federal payments of about $300 per week to individuals are desperately needed to help the long-term unemployed – nearly 3 million people, many of them middle-aged heads of household caring for children and parents. The payments would be retroactive and go through May.

Moreover, Senate Democrats, in a tough negotiation with five Senate Republicans, already met several GOP objections in their bill: They found offsets to pay for the extension’s $9.7 billion price tag and they addressed some concerns about waste and job training. The risk for Republicans is that opposing the Senate’s bill simply reinforces their image as uncaring – an image that Democrats aim to exploit in an election year when control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

Three primary objections nevertheless stand in the way of the Senate’s measure, although an effort by a handful of Republican representatives could yet sway the House leadership:

A bandaid, not a cure. House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio complains, as do many Republicans in both houses, that the extension only addresses the symptoms of joblessness, not its cause. Show me the measures to create jobs, Mr. Boehner says, and maybe I’ll look at something from the Senate on unemployment insurance.

Senate Republicans tried to add job enhancers – things like approving the Keystone XL pipeline, ending the Obama administration’s carbon regulations that hurt the coal industry, and boosting the definition of the work week in the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” from 30 hours to 40 hours to remove the incentive for employers to cut hours. 

But Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said no. He feared that adding such controversial measures would blow up the carefully crafted compromise.

The bill’s supporters argue that jobless benefits not only help families in desperate need, they save other jobs in the economy because of spending by benefit recipients. For every $1 spent on jobless benefits, $1.55 is returned to the economy from such spending, according to one estimate. 

Difficult for states to implement. Boehner says the extension is unworkable in the states. He cites a March 19 letter written by the president of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies to the Senate leadership.

A big problem, according to the letter, is the time that has lapsed since the benefits expired on Dec. 28. Having to go back and confirm, for instance, that individuals were looking for work every week since the end of December, would be “nearly impossible” in many cases, the letter said.

Supporters argue that states have been able to handle previous lapses in extensions, which began with the economic crisis of 2008 and were meant to help the jobless after their state benefits ran out. But the states’ adroitness was due to clear signals from both the House and Senate that Congress intended to pass extension legislation. States kept collecting eligibility information while they waited for the law to be enacted. This time, it was never clear that Congress would extend the benefits, so states stopped collecting the information.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez – a former state official responsible for carrying out unemployment insurance – has since written the Senate leadership to say the Labor department can help the states. He says he is “confident there are workable solutions” to all of their concerns.

Time to end this thing. Many Republicans simply believe it’s a mistake to extend benefits yet again. Since the Great Recession of 2008, Congress has extended or expanded emergency unemployment insurance 12 times. A 13th is simply one time too many in an economy that is growing, and where the jobless rate has been generally coming down, Republicans argue. They don’t want a temporary safety net to become a permanent hammock.

But supporters of the Senate bill say the Great Recession was like none other. And, they point out that federal unemployment insurance is issued according to state need – the duration of benefits decreases as states recover. It’s no coincidence that the Senate bill’s two sponsors – Sens. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island and Dean Heller (R) of Nevada – represent states at or near the top of the unemployment chart, 9 percent for Rhode Island and 8.5 percent for Nevada. The national average is 6.7 percent.

“These are real American families trying to make ends meet,” Senator Heller said last week, arguing for passage on the Senate floor. “They are people who want to get back to work, want to be self-sufficient, want to provide for their families.” Unemployment insurance “is a critical safety net … especially during periods of high unemployment, such as we have now,” said the Nevada senator, whose state had the unenviable position of holding the nation’s highest jobless rate for nearly five years.

Now that the Senate has approved the bill, Heller says he wants to meet with Boehner just as soon as he can and express openness to working with the House. He will reassure the speaker that the plan can be implemented, and he hopes that fellow Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the bill's dealmakers, can exercise some influence over the speaker, who is also from the Buckeye state.

The six GOP senators who voted with Democrats for the bill include the five negotiators: Sens. Heller, Portman, Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, seven House Republicans have sent a letter to Boehner, urging that the GOP leadership immediately move the Senate bill or an alternative. The members come from swing districts or ones with high jobless rates in New York, New Jersey, and Nevada. One option might be to attach a measure that has appealed to both Democrats and Republicans in the past, such as repealing a tax on medical devices that is part of the Affordable Care Act. Another idea is to drop the retroactive aspect and simply extend jobless benefits going forward for five months.

But that assumes House Republicans want to go along with an extension. Many object in principal to more long-term jobless benefits. Their gerrymandered districts presumably protect them from any backlash they may encounter from constituents.

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