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Heller and Reed discuss next steps for the unemployment benefits extension bill

Senators Dean Heller, R-NV and Jack Reed, D-RI hold a press conference discussing the current situation with the unemployment benefits extension bill and the possibility of it passing in the House of Representatives, May 1, 2014
Senators Dean Heller, R-NV and Jack Reed, D-RI hold a press conference discussing the current situation with the unemployment benefits extension bill and the possibility of it passing in the House of Representatives, May 1, 2014
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

At this point the fate of the unemployment benefits extension bill is in as Roll Call describes as "legislative limbo" since Tuesday, April 29, 2014 when Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH refused to negotiate with Senator Dean Heller R-NV, on the bill and put it to a vote in the House of Representatives. Senator Heller and his Democratic Senate colleague, Jack Reed, D-R.I. and co-author and sponsor of the bill held a press conference on Thursday, May 1, 2014 at Capitol Hill to discuss the present status of the Senate passed bill and the prospects of the unemployment benefits extension being passed in any form by the House. Nearly 3 million long-term jobless have been left without any benefits since Dec. 28, 2013 when Congress let the EUC program expire. The clock is ticking for the House of Representatives to pass the unemployment benefits extension as the Senate bill has an end of May best before date, or else Congress will have to go back to the drawing board.

Senator Heller told the press about his Tuesday, April 29 conversation with the House Speaker. Heller recounted Boehner's demands from President Barack Obama and the White House, and his insistence that any bill include job creation measures. Heller explains that Speaker Boehner "wants the president to move on the necessary jobs proposals … because he believes if they do that then there would be a better chance of something like this passing."

Senator Heller phoned Speaker of the House Boehner Tuesday afternoon, April 29, 2014 where they discussed the speaker's need to have job creation measures added to the Senate passed bill to put it to a vote in the House. Apparently according a statement from Boehner's office Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV is refusing to have any job creation provisions added to the bill, despite the fact that he seemed in recent comments more open to idea to be able restore the benefits.

In the 15-minute phone call Boehner reiterated his demands that the White House list what job creation measures the House Republicans could add to the bill. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney already told Boehner on Monday, April 21 that the administration refuses to negotiate on the bill. Boehner has consistently placed the blame on President Barack Obama and the White House for the House for not taking up the unemployment extension rather that insult or criticize fellow Republican Heller. After the call Heller stated Boehner wants "to know and believe the White House is serious about it." Continuing, Heller emphasized that Boehner "was very adamant about that."

Senator Heller seemed understanding of the Speaker's point of view. Heller explained; "I do understand the frustration. But that is where the speaker is coming from, that is where the Republicans are coming from, so much legislation that we send over that no action is being take on. … They feel compelled that this [unemployment insurance extension bill] is the only thing they can attach it to." Boehner wants job measures added to the bill, because the Senate Democrats are ignoring any job creating legislation that the Houses passes, this was a way of bargaining and compromising, the Democrats get legislation they want, the Republicans get what they want. Heller listed some of the job creation measures and legislation, the GOP House has passed, but has been ignored; "They believe that they have offered numerous working programs and legislation [...] on energy development, reforms to the Affordable Care Act, tax reform and some of those issues which they believe are comparative to get people back to work."

Senator Heller mentioned the Republicans in the House who have advocating and urging the speaker to put the bill to a vote or add suggested provisions to make it acceptable to the majority of Republicans. "There are Republican members who are on our side. I realize who's in the majority over there [...] and if it takes convincing." Some of these provisions include job training in the form of the SKILLS Act as many Republicans are supporting or elements of the GROWTH Act, which is floating around the House as a less popular alternative. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV however, opposes any provisions being added to the Senate unemployment benefits extension bill. Heller promised that; "I'll continue to try working with the speaker and anybody on either side of the aisle in the House of Representatives to try and move something forward." At this time Heller is negotiating with House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-TX, would wants to add business tax provisions.

Senator Heller has taken on the role as chief Senate negotiator with the House to ensure the bill passes and becomes law. Heller decided to approach another House Republican to negotiate with after Speaker Boehner refused to negotiate with him on the Senate unemployment benefits extension bill and put the bill to a vote in the House of Representatives. Heller does not intend to give up and decided to contact House Rules Committee Chairman Sessions, R-TX who expressed interest in the bill. The two Republicans spoke on the phone Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014 according to Politico. The choice is rather surprising considering Sessions fierce opposition this past winter to renewing the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program.

Among the prospective proposals is the one from two Republican Representatives, Charlie Dent from Pennsylvania and Mark Meadows from North Carolina introduced an alternative to the Senate passed unemployment benefits extension bill entitled the "GROWTH (Generating Real Opportunities for Workers and Transitional Help) Act" (HR 3885). The new bill restructures the Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, extends benefits for a year, and adds provisions that would pass the XL Keystone Pipeline, and change two elements of the Affordable Care Act, the health care law.

The most popular provision choice, by the House GOP at this moment to bring the bill to a House vote is the "Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act" (HR 803) sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. and passed by the House in March 2013. Senator Heller agrees that combining job training would be good a fit and he supports that idea just as long as the unemployment benefits extension gets passed. The SKILLS Act "streamlines" job training programs, and would provide job training to 3.7 million Americans unemployed for longer than 27 weeks.

Not all Republicans in the House of Representatives agree with Speaker Boehner's position and dismissal on long-term jobless unemployment benefits, and on Thursday, April 3, 2014, seven Republican Reps signed a letter objecting to Boehner, asking him and House Majority leader Eric Cantor, R-VA to pass the Senate's bill or House produced "alternative." Reps. Peter T. King, R-NY and Frank A. LoBiondo, R-NJ sent the Speaker a letter requesting he extend unemployment benefits and put the Senate bill known as HR 3979 or just any unemployment benefits extension bill to a vote.

Senator Reed, a Democrat, was much less understanding of the Speaker's and House GOP's reluctance to put the bill to a vote and pass it. Reed commented that what Boehner and House Republicans are rationalizing is not enough of a reason to not pass the bill, and leave three million Americans stranded. Reed thinks that GOP House should not be using the White House as an excuse to not to pass the bill. According to Reed "It's an excuse, not a good reason. Rather than looking down at Pennsylvania Ave., they should look back to every district in this country and look at people struggling." Reed knows the House knows how to solve problems and dilemmas like they are having now, and if they wanted to they could find a solution. "The House is capable of generating ideas and policies. … They do it all the time," Reed told the press.

Reed is also objecting to the Republican's favorite excuse not to extend the benefits, that it makes the unemployed prefer to be remain unemployed as to live off and collect money from the government rather than actually work. Reed from his own experience with his constituents' stories knows that is not the case with the majority of the long-term jobless; "Some in the house have suggested that it's really a disincentive to work when in fact, my sense in going around Rhode Island is people desperately want to work and they desperately need some help just to keep the lights on and put gas in the car and the telephone that they can respond to job requests and job interviews."

Generally Republicans have opposed the extension because they believe it does not motivate the unemployed to find a job as long as they have access to benefits. All throughout the financial crisis and recession Republicans voted with Democrats to extend the benefits, but now with the worst of the crisis over Republicans think the long-term jobless need to find jobs rather than receive benefits.

Although Senator Heller understands the House Republican's point of view on wanting job creation measures and legislation passed by the Senate he believes that this is a dire economic situation, deserving of an exemption from the usual political ideology and positions. Heller stated; "I would argue and urge them to separate those two issues. But today we have a problem. Those are long-term fixes. … But the critical thing today is that we help those 34,000 in Nevada and 2.6 million across the country that need relief today." The unemployment benefits extension is what needs to be passed now; there are no time limits for the other proposed legislation. Reed added that the long-term jobless are "running out of savings, they're running out of options, and they're running out of time."

Both Heller and Reed urged the House to pass the unemployment benefits extension bill, saying "Time is of the essence." The two Senators do not plan to give up and if this bill expires, and does not get passed they will write another one in June. Heller and Reed have been championing and working constantly since January to get the unemployment benefits extended for America's jobless.

The fate of the unemployment benefits extension is in the House's hands now since the Senate passed the unemployment benefits extension bill on April 7, 2014. Since then the Republicans in the House of Representatives have been considering adding job creating provisions to the bill to make it acceptable to Speaker of the House John Boehner so that he would put the bill to a vote. At this point the speaker will not put the bill to a House vote without any added provisions.

At the GOP leadership press conference on Thursday, April 10 Boehner had asked for the White House and Obama administration to let him know which provisions would be acceptable. The White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded at the daily press briefing on Monday, April 21, 2014 that the White House refuses and objects for the House adding any additional provisions to the unemployment benefits extension bill and President Obama will not negotiate on any concessions on the unemployment benefits bill he wants the House GOP to pass the Senate bill as is.

Boehner speaking to the press on Thursday morning, April 10 reiterated his position on job creation measures being a part of any unemployment benefits extension bill he would bring to a House vote. Boehner stated; "Listen, I made clear to the president last December that if he wanted us to consider an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, it would have to be paid for and it would have to include things that would help get our economy going." Boehner still believes that the Senate needs to move on serious job creation bills to solve the economic problems that Americans are still facing. Job creation and training legislation is a priority for Boehner and the Republican House. Boehner even focused the GOP weekly address on Saturday, April 26, 2014 on urging the Senate Democrats to work with the House GOP on the economy and job creation and passing the House's jobs bills.

The speaker explained on April 10 the types of bills the House are making a priority. Boehner indicated; "So the House is going to continue to focus on the American people's priorities: creating good paying jobs, increasing wages, and expanding opportunity for all Americans. This means reforming our job training and skills programs, advancing bipartisan charter school legislation, critical water and highway infrastructure bills, expanding exports to our allies, and repealing and replacing ObamaCare - just to name a few." The speaker's listing of legislating priorities give a good idea what type of provisions need to be added to the unemployment benefits extension to get the bill to a vote and passed in the House.

The pressure is on from on Speaker Boehner from fellow Republicans, Democrats, the Senate and the White House to pass the unemployment benefits extension. Supporters are arguing back that not extending the benefits would hurt the economy. Supporters cite a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study that found a full year extension would provide 0.2 growth to the economy, and even the five-month Senate extension would serve beneficial to the economy. If extended for a full year the CBO study concludes extending benefits would add 200,000 jobs and the program would cost $26 billion.

The Senate passed on Monday, April 7, 2014 the long-term jobless unemployment benefits extension bill with 59 votes for and 38 against with six Republicans joining the Democrats to pass the bill. The bill will extend the benefits retroactively for five months from Dec. 28, 2013 and last until June 1, 2014. The speaker has already said he will not allow the House to vote on the Senate's bill in the present format. The Senate bill will cost $10 billion will be entirely covered by revenue. The bill is authored and primarily sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-NV, who have been leading the charge for an unemployment benefits extension. The bipartisan bill has eight other Senate sponsors, including the support of five Republicans.

During the 2008 recession when Republican George W. Bush was President the government enlarged the Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) Program to extend unemployment benefits beyond the 26 weeks that the states give. During the recession the "combined" state and federal benefits gave unemployed Americans 99 weeks of relief. The federal government provides "47 weeks" of extended benefits averaging "$300 a week." The unemployment benefits were extended 11 times until now, the last time was a year extension in January 2013. Then benefits were cut from 99 weeks to a maximum of 73 weeks.

Since Dec. 28, 2013 nearly 3 million Americans lost access to benefits, and each week about 70,000 Americans have lost benefits, by the end of the year 1.6 million more Americans will lose benefits. With the new April jobs report released on May 2, 2014 it will be even more difficult to convince reluctant Republicans to extend unemployment benefits. The economy added 288,000 jobs, the most for one month in two years, while the unemployment rate plummeted from 6.7 percent down to 6.3 percent, the lowest since September 2008, just before the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the long-term unemployment rate also fell, according to USA Today there are 287,000 less Americans unemployed for longer than six months. Now the total stands at 3.5 million Americans or 35.5 percent all unemployed Americans. The results gives reluctant Republicans an argument that the economy is improving and no longer under the recession where emergency measures needed to be in place, jobs are there and they will expect the long-term unemployed to go out and get them.

The Senate unemployment benefits extension bill expires at the end of May, with less than a month left, Boehner and the House Republicans will have to pass the bill as is, or a compromise has to be reached with the White House and Senate. If not the Senate or House will have to start over and the chances of any unemployment benefits be extended will be slim at best. With a packed agenda, and only 55 working days until the midterm elections, lines will drawn deeper between the Democrats and Republicans will deepen in a election year where the Republicans are close to regaining control of the Senate.

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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. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.