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GOP highway fund bill takes away funding from unemployment benefits extension

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When the House of Representatives passed the highway funding extension bill on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 they took away the payment method for the unemployment benefits extension bill that the bill's co-authors Senators Jack Reed, D-RI and Dean Heller, R-NV had been planning to use since March 2014 when they first unveiled their bipartisan bill, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014. The House passed highway trust fund extension bill; H.R. 5021: Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 takes away the funds from pension smoothing and increasing customs fees that Reed and Heller had been planning to use. Even more bad news is the fact that the bill passed with bipartisan support 367 to 55. With so many jobs on the line if the highway bill fails to be renewed, the bill has the reluctant support of President Barack Obama, and the Democratic Senate is open to the bill as well, leaving the unemployment benefits extension almost doomed to failure.

The highway and transportation bill, the MAP-21 Reauthorization has two different incarnations in the House and Senate; the bill must pass by August 1 if not transportation funding will be cut by 28 percent with "100,000 transportation projects" and "700,000 construction jobs" on the line. Since so many jobs are at stake, it has been deemed a priority to President Barack Obama, the GOP House and Democratic Senate. The bill's importance and funding methods come at the expense of the unemployment benefits extension bill and the over 3.1 million Americans that desperately want to see the bill pass and benefits renewed.

Senator Reed commented in a statement after the House passed highway bill on Tuesday, July 15 lamenting and criticizing the GOP for taking away his bill's funding; "This is now the second time they've taken offsets intended to help the unemployed and used them to pay for other priorities." The first time was in February to extend a Medicare cut. Reed said he supports the two bills that used those same funding methods, but he believes that the unemployment benefits extension is just as important. Reed expressed; "I support our military retirees, I support fixing our roads and bridges. But it is time for the House to finally show a little support for job seekers. We can't afford to turn our backs on the long term unemployed."

Since the funding method has been criticized by Republicans and Conservatives Reed also commented that this proves that it is a legitimate way to pay for a bill, saying; "I think it's very revealing that, you know, now [pension smoothing and customs fees are] not a gimmick, but it's a very prudent way to respond to the fiscal issues of the Highway Trust Fund. You know, it's nice to sort of be copied, in some respects, but then it's not nice."

The House version of the highway funding bill drafted by the Republican majority, and authored by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is a temporary short term bill extending funding until May 2015. The $10.8 billion bill is being funded the same way as the unemployment benefits extension bill had planned to be paid for, through pension smoothing and custom fees. The unemployment benefits extension bill also will cost 10 billion for the five month extension that is planned in the Reed-Heller bill.

In contrast, the Democratic controlled Senate's bill planned to fund their bill by pension smoothing and raising taxes, particularly the gas tax, something the Republican House opposes as does President Obama. The Senate has two bills, one provides a long-term solution, but without Republicans agreeing to raise taxes the two parties might never come to an agreement on the bill. The second bill is an even shorter term bill, last only until December and paid for with tax increases. Majority Leader Reid wants the Senate to vote on all three versions of the transportation bills, saying; "My intention is have votes on all three." One thing for sure, the House again left the unemployment benefits extension on the short end of the stick. He plans to allow a vote early this week.

At the GOP leadership press conference on Thursday, July 17, 2014 Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH indicated that he believes the Senate will pass their bill; "We passed a bipartisan highway bill to prevent projects from shutting down here in the next several months. I expect a quick resolution of this matter in a bipartisan way." Continuing Boehner explained; "It's a sound proposal; it's why it got bipartisan support in the House, and it's frankly why it's going to get bipartisan support in the Senate." Rep. Sandy Levin, D-MI, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee also believes the House bill is the one that will pass and "become law," saying; "I don't want to speak for Harry Reid, but if I were betting, I'd bet a lot of money on that."

President Obama is not pleased with the renewal of the highway trust fund bill that the Republicans have passed because it is short term preventing long term planning for projects. During a speech on the economy in McLean, Virginia on Tuesday, July 15 Obama complained that the bill is a "short-term fix" saying that; "All this does is set us up for the crisis a few months from now. Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months. Kicking the can down the road a few months ... instead of barely paying our bills in the present, we should be investing in our future."

Still the White House issued a statement supporting the bill prior to it vote in the House, which read; "With surface transportation funding running out and hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk later this summer, the Administration supports House passage of H.R. 5021 [the Highway Trust Fund bill]. This legislation would provide for continuity of funding for the Highway Trust Fund during the height of the summer construction season and keep Americans at work repairing the Nation's crumbling roads, bridges, and transit systems." In this short statement, Obama gave credence to the Republicans not extending benefits for the long-term jobless, because he condones taking way the way to pay for the extension.

Sen. Heller and Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call have both called out President Obama for not being involved enough with the unemployment benefits extension bill and that is why it has failed to pass. Speaker Boehner has been asking the White House and Obama to provide him a list of job creation measures to add to the bill since the beginning of April, and Obama has sent his press secretaries and the Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, but he never called up the speaker to negotiate. Neither has he threatened to veto any bills over the benefits extension, Roll Call noted that "Obama has yet to hold any Republican priorities hostage to an unemployment extension."

All the president is good at doing is complaining about the Republicans for not passing the unemployment extension, with witty one line criticisms in speeches on the economy and his economic opportunity program, where he complains about the GOP House not passing his domestic agenda. An example was a recent speech on the economy delivered in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 27, 2014 Obama declared; "They've said no to extending unemployment insurance for more than three million Americans who are out there looking every single day for a new job, despite the fact that we know it would be good not just for those families who are working hard to try to get back on their feet, but for the economy as a whole." This one and similar one liners are as far the president has gone to help extend benefits for the over 3 million he seems so concerned about.

The speaker's spokesman Michael Steel also commented on the unemployment benefits extension on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. Steel referred to Boehner's request for job creations measures to be added to the bill, those provisions were a key demand from the speaker in order to put the bill to a House vote. Steel questioned; "We have no idea why -- in eight months -- the White House and Senate Democrats have not developed such a plan."

Senators Reed and Heller have also been looking to add the unemployment benefits extension bill as an amendment or supplemental to popular bipartisan bills. They have long been eyeing attaching to it to the highway trust fund bill, however, Senate Majority Leader Reid stated on Tuesday, July 15 that "I doubt it," when asked if the benefits extension would be added to the highway bill. However, Reid did say that "The highway bill has to move forward, and I'm going to do everything I can to expedite it as much as I can, quickly," meaning it is all but certain the funding will taken away from the unemployment extension. Reed still hopes the bill may be added to the emergency spending bill aimed at alleviating the border crisis.

Over three million long-term jobless Americans have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks, they need the benefits to survive, and each week around 72,000 keep losing benefits. Although the total unemployment rate keeps falling each month, the long-term jobless rate in June remains high. The long-term unemployment fell by 293,000 and in total has dropped 700,000 in the past three months since March, there are however, still 3.1 million unemployed for six months or more, and compromise 32.8 percent of all unemployed Americans. Older workers, women and younger workers with in service and blue collar jobs with only a high school diploma are the most affected. The EUC program usually has been renewed as long as the long-term jobless rate is above 1.3 percent.

Steven Denis writing in Roll Call stated in an article published on Monday, July 14, 2014 declared that the highway funding bill's passage "may doom any remaining chance for an unemployment extension." Reed and Heller, however, are not giving-up on the over 3.1 million long-term jobless Americans. Currently they are looking for other methods to pay for. Sen. Heller spoke to Politico about the highway bill development, saying; "That's going to be an issue." The two senators are working now to find an acceptable method of funding for Republicans, because if there any chance the bill will pass it has to do so with funding.

Time is not on the unemployment benefits extension's side, with Congress working only 35 days until the midterm elections, and just two weeks until the August recess. Sen. Heller thinks it is good news that the unemployment rate is going down, however it remains high for the long-term jobless especially in their home states of Rhode Island and Nevada. Heller expressed; "The good news is that the unemployment numbers are moving in the right direction. I want those unemployment numbers to go down. But the problem is those numbers aren't moving as fast in Nevada and Rhode Island. So that's why Jack and I keep pushing."

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.

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