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Heller and Reed unveil new unemployment extension bill excludes retro payments

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New hope for the over three million long-term jobless Americans was unveiled in the form of a new unemployment benefits extension bill introduced by Senators Jack Reed, D-RI and Dean Heller, R-NV in a joint press conference on Tuesday morning, June 24, 2014 in the Capitol building. The bill is a much more parsed down version than the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014 that passed the Senate on April 7, and languished in the House of Representative committee stage, before expiring on May 31, 2014. There is one catch for the new bill will not include retroactive payments, therefore some long-term employed could lose up to six months of payments if they lost them when the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program expired on Dec. 28, 2013 and are still unemployed.

The bipartisan duo which have been working to secure legislation to extends the EUC program since December 2013, are united in fighting for the long-term unemployed in their states, Rhode Island and Nevada. Both their states have the highest number of long-term jobless in the country. Senator Reed in introducing the new legislation urged Congress to pass their new attempt to extend unemployment benefits and he explained that doing everything to help Americans get back to work is important to stabilizing the economy and creating jobs.

Reed believes extending benefits is key to this goal; "We need to get our country back to full employment -- to a place where all Americans have an opportunity to earn a living and build a better life for their families. Restoring unemployment insurance is the decent thing to do, and it is a smart step that will provide some much needed stability and predictability to the long-term unemployed as well as to local businesses and our economy as a whole. That is why Senator Heller and I continue working on bipartisan solutions that will help job seekers. I appreciate Senator Heller's steadfast leadership and commitment to helping more people who’ve been out of work return to the labor force."

While Heller emphasized the problems his long-term unemployed constituents in Nevada are facing without the extension and he believes this new bill should satisfy the House GOP leadership’s demands as well as Democratic supporters. Heller recounted; "This year has been extremely difficult for Nevadans who still do not know how they are going to pay their bills or feed their families. Senator Reed and I have gone back to the drawing board, and put together a new proposal that I hope both chambers of Congress can debate and vote on. This new bill allows for job-seeking Americans to collect these important benefits moving forward, and pays for them as well. I am grateful to Senator Reed for his continued partnership on this important issue. His input and his friendship have been invaluable over the past many months."

Senators Reed and Heller's new stand-alone bill attempts to comply more with Speaker of the House John Boehner's, R-OH demands. The bill will have a five-month extension, lasting approximately until the end of 2014. The new bill will cost a total of $10 billion and will be paid for by revenue, including "pension smoothing" and "extending Customs user fees through 2024" as was the last bill. One of the major benefits of the new bill is that unlike the previous one there is no deadline; Congress can always choose to pass it, preferably sooner rather than later.

The bill includes additional provisions, including excluding Americans who have earned $1 million and over the previous year. Those receiving benefits would also be allowed to have access "enhanced, personalized assessments and referrals to reemployment services" to help them in the efforts to find employment, a task that is far more difficult for the long-term unemployed since they face discrimination. They will able to received those services at "27th week of UI (Tier I)" and then again at the "55th week of UI (Tier III)."

The new bill however, would not be retroactive, because rates have been falling even slightly, and it was also a roadblock to passing the bill the last time. Boehner believed the states have not been keeping track of eligibility, since the deal was reached months after the EUC program expired. Heller stated at the press conference the reasoning behind the decision to omit this element from the bill; "In the environment we have here today, we wouldn't be able to pass retroactive unemployment extension." Meanwhile Reed thinks that "All of these excuses - not reasons, but excuses - foiled our plan. So we're beginning again."

Although there will not be a retroactive element, those who were eligible when the EUC program expired and did not go back to work, will be allowed to collect the remaining weeks of benefits they were set to receive when the new bill would be signed into law. Reed and Heller announced; "The new Reed-Heller bill provides prospective emergency benefits and allows eligible job seekers who were cut off on December 28 to pick up where they left off in the UI claims process." Sen. Reed's spokesman Chip Unruh explained to CBS News how that will work; "If you were eligible for three more weeks...you would be able to collect those three weeks."

The new bill does not include that almighty job creation element, which was the main roadblock for the first Senate passed bill. It was not possible for the Senate to add job creation measures to the bill. Heller previously stated that adding job creation elements is something the House would have to do. Then the two bills can be resolved in conference negotiations with the Senate. The first Reed-Heller bill also did not include job creation measures. After the bill was passed and transferred to the House, Boehner had unsuccessfully lobbied that the White House provide him a list of acceptable job creating provisions to the now defunct bill. Job creation provisions were a key demand from the speaker in order to put the bill to a House vote. Senate leadership or the White House were not willing to allow Boehner to add any provisions that were appealing to the House Republicans, any suggestions given were part of Obama and Democrats agenda. Heller is an agreement with Boehner that the White House provide provisions that are acceptable for the GOP House to move along the bill.

The fact that the bill still does not include job creation provisions might mean it could result in the same fate in the House as the previous Reed-Heller bill. Senator Heller expressed however; "It's the best we can do under the circumstances," even though he wished the bill could had all the elements of the original bill. Heller also understands the reluctance Republicans have for the bill. The bill is a "water downed" version was supposed to appeal to Republican demands however; Speaker was not "impressed." Speaker Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel commented after the press conference unveiling; "The speaker laid out the criteria before Christmas: We will take a look at any plan that is fiscally-responsible, and does something to help create private-sector jobs."

Although earlier in the month Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-NV promised to bring the new bill to a vote, stating; "Anytime Sen. Heller makes a little progress on this we'll bring it back. Because people are just as desperate today as they were two months ago" it is still not listed for a vote date. Reid was pleased with the new bill "applauding" the senator efforts "to keep the issue alive." Speaking at the Democratic Senate Leadership weekly news conference Reid criticized the House Republicans for not acting on the issue; “We need to get some movement in the House. We've already passed an unemployment extension over here and the House, in their typical fashion, has done nothing."

Senator Reed is uncertain when the bill will reach the Senate floor for a vote, explaining; "This is a very crowded agenda for the rest of the year. We are not giving up. We are going to use the same all-out full court press all the time. If there is an opening and we can bring the bill to the floor and we've got the votes we are going to urge the leader to do that." Senator Heller never expected that it take so long to extend the EUC program when he and Reed first began collaborating for it s renewal over six months ago. Heller said; "What I was hoping would be a sprint has become a marathon."

There are some additional hurdles to having the new bill passed. First House Republicans, if they would demonstrate an interest in passing the bill, by acting on the old bill with modifications, it would improve the chances of Senate Republicans again voting for the extension. Of the original Republican co-sponsors "Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rob Portman of Ohio," Kirk is displaying reluctance to support the new bill.

If there was chance that the new House leadership would be any more lax and supportive passing the extension, it is not and is standing even more behind Boehner. Heller spoke with his friend from the House Majority-Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, who is just as insistent as the speaker that job creating provisions need to be included to pass any EUC extending legislation. Heller is in the process of ongoing negotiations with the new House leader and recounted McCarthy's position; "His message was very clear. It was very similar to Boehner's-very similar to Boehner's-and that is, 'We want job provisions.'"

President Barack Obama's obstinance and refusal to get involved in the negotiation process has been also a major roadblock, especially in rallying the Speaker and House Republicans. Heller believes "If we are going to make progress … he needs to be more engaged and I'll continue to say that. He needs to pick up the phone and call the speaker and say, 'Hey, how are we going to get this done.'" Heller is working every angle possible to beat the odds and ensure the bill passes preferably before the August recess. Heller is working with Majority Leader Reid to schedule the debate and vote, he is garnering votes from Senate Republicans particularly the old co-sponsors who helped the bill pass the last time, and he is negotiating with the House Republican leadership to ensure the bill gets scheduled as well in the House once it passes the Senate.

Heller and Reed's cooperation is the bipartisan model Congress should strive for, but Reed still blames the House Republicans for not passing their first unemployment benefits extension bill, and the opposition early on to their new bill, and the roadblocks they will place to prevent its passage or even a vote on it. Reed expressed that "There are lots of our colleagues in Congress who don't want to act, and we've heard lots of excuses."

Senator Reed fought back against the Republicans favorite argument against extending the EUC program that the unemployment situation is getting better. Reed said although number are improving for the short term unemployed, the long-term unemployed are facing the brunt if the problems. Although the total unemployment rate keeps falling each month, the long-term jobless rate in May remains high at 3.4 million, 34.6 percent or a third of all unemployed Americans, just slightly lower than in April. 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. Reed explained; "We are seeing the overall unemployment numbers come down, but long-term unemployment is stuck pretty much where it's been for the last year."

Presently over 3.1 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. That number is more than double the original 1.3 million that were affected when the bill first expired on Dec. 28, 2013. In total over 10 million Americans are still unemployed from the Great Recession and its aftermath. Sen. Heller worries the most about living in the western states, expressing "I'm concerned going into the summer months," because of the rising gas prices increasing cost of living and making it more difficult for the long-term jobless on their job hunt.

Despite opposition from Republicans, Democrats in both the House and Senate staunchly support extending unemployment benefits. Rep. Sander Levin, D-MI, the Ranking Member of Ways and Means Committee who has launched "Witness Wednesdays" commended the new bill in a statement. Levin wrote; "The bipartisan bill introduced today in the Senate answers Speaker Boehner's demands that any extension of unemployment benefits be paid for and be provided only on a prospective basis. The bill could be easily combined with upcoming legislation to fund transportation improvements or to extend tax breaks to meet the Speaker's final demand that any UI extension be part of larger legislation that will create jobs. The time for excuses is long over. Three million Americans – including nearly 300,000 veterans – have now lost their unemployment benefits because of Republican obstructionism. We must act now."

Witness Wednesdays is being held each Wednesday in June and July at lunch time, 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. on the Capital steps where "members of Congress and faith, labor, civil rights, and nonprofit leaders" read personal stories submitted to the Democrats' Ways and Means Committee website of those suffering from losing their unemployment benefits. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) Schakowsky, who has been involved in those weekly sessions expressed that "There is a commitment from the Democrats in the House to not let this fall off of the table." Continuing Schakowsky explained; "This is about families and the stories are devastating." Senators Heller and Reed understand the hardships the families are facing and Heller promised Americans "We're not giving up."

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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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