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Heller wants Obama to be involved in unemployment benefits extension negotiation

The pressure is no longer just on Speaker of House John Boehner, R-OH and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to negotiate and pass an extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program for the long-term jobless President Barack Obama is facing pressure to get involved in the negotiations. Senator Dean Heller, R-NV the Republican half of the duo who authored and sponsored the bipartisan unemployment benefits extension bill formally entitled the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014 that passed in the Senate in April, but just expired wants Obama to get involved in the "discussions." Heller spoke to the press on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 updating them as to the progress on a new bill he is working on with Senator Jack Reed, D-RI. Both their states currently have the highest long-term unemployed rates in the country.

President Barack Obama likes to criticize the Republicans in the House of Representatives, but he refuses to get involved in negotiations to pass the unemployment benefits extension, Sen. Dean Heller believes Obama's involvement would help, June 10, 2014
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama as usual does not want to take an active part in negotiations with Congress. First Speaker Boehner had been trying to coax Obama or the White House in general to provide in general a list of acceptable job creating provisions to the now defunct bill. Boehner has specifically been pressuring the president since after the bill passed in the Senate on April 7, and was transferred to the committee stage in the House. Job creation provisions were a key demand from the speaker in order to put the bill to a House vote.

President Obama has not even publicly urged or prodded the House to pass the bill in any recent public speeches, remarks or events. Except for a few one liners in speeches on different topics or issues in the beginning of May and a few posts on Twitter, Obama has said nothing personally on passing the bill. Instead, the president has been relegating others with the administration to answer Boehner including his press secretaries, first Jay Carney and now Josh Earnest to answer Boehner through the Daily Press Briefings.

Just on Monday, June 9, 2014 the unemployment benefits extension was broached again at the daily press briefing. A reporter also pressed the White House about getting involved beyond the few casual comments, asking; "House Democrats today said that 3 million Americans have now seen their unemployment insurance lapse. I'm wondering what, beyond occasionally mentioning the topic at the briefing, what the White House is doing to try to push through a compromise on this issue?"

The new press secretary Josh Earnest shifted the blame entirely on the Republicans; "Well, there are a handful of Republicans who have stepped forward to try to work with us and try to work with Democrats on the Hill to move this forward, but there's only one reason this hasn't gotten done, and the reason for that…is that congressional Republicans in both the Senate and the House have blocked it." Earnest gave the excuse that the bill is obviously important to the long-term jobless and the economy and therefore it is not important for president to personally push the legislation or the issue. Earnest continued; "There is a clear case to be made that this would meet an urgent need that's being felt by families across the country. There's a clear case to be made about the benefits that this would have for the broader economy. But Republicans seem unmoved by those facts, and that's the reason it hasn't gotten done."

The reporter refused to let the White House slide about Obama's lack of involvement in an issue that supposedly is important to him, and continued to ask "So what are you doing to move them?" Earnest responded that the White House consults with the House, especially the GOP; "Well, we are in regular consultation with members of Congress, particularly Republicans, on a range of issues, not the least of which is ways that we can take steps that would strengthen our economy and things that we can do to strengthen the financial standing of middle-class families. And this is certainly an example of one of them." Still Earnest tried to emphasize the Republicans are entirely to blame, to deflect any possible criticism on the president's lack of involvement; "But again, it's not the only example of Republicans standing in the way of commonsense policy decisions that would benefit middle-class families in this country."

The reporter was relentless trying to determine if consults included Speaker Boehner, if the Obama and the White House are ignoring the speaker it proves that Boehner is right, Obama is responsible as well for the unemployment benefits extension bill languishing and expiring in the House. The reporter further questioned; "You're in regular consultation with members of Congress. Does that include Speaker Boehner, who has said specifically that he wants to see the platform of the White House on this issue?"

Earnest however, fumbled and could not respond to the question, stating; "I don't have anything specific to -- any specific conversations to read out. But there is a compromise piece of legislation that has been proposed by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate that we have indicated that we're generally supportive of." Obama has avoided being involved in the negotiations at all, afraid it will tarnish his rating even more. But as the old saying goes if you not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, which was what Heller emphasized on Tuesday, when he spoke with the press. Obama could use the power of the presidency as presidents in the past have to push Congress to pass legislation that is important to them and essential for the country, but Obama does not, he avoids any attempt of bipartisanship and negotiating with Republicans preferring to attack them.

This was the second time the White House press secretaries have essentially laughed off President Obama's importance in the issue. When Jay Carney was asked a similar question by Roll Call at the Wednesday, May 21, 2014 daily briefing, he sarcastically laughed off the importance of the president getting involved saying; "I think it's a novel supposition that Speaker Boehner would suddenly embrace the idea of extended unemployment insurance if the president would just call him and ask for it." A month prior Monday, April 21, 2014 briefing Carney dismissed Boehner's request for a list of job creation provisions as "an attempt to throw spaghetti against the wall on sort of ideological things that have nothing to do with making sure that these benefits get to the people who need them."

A more personal and the only direct response the speaker received from the Obama administration was from Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, who sent a letter to Boehner on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 urging him to put the unemployment benefits extension bill to a vote. Perez also provided Boehner with a list of possible job creation provisions, which were all Obama and Democrat legislative priorities, and most would not appeal to Republicans. Although there was one exception, the jobs training bill. However, the Senate sponsors of Senate's jobs training bill "the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (PL 105-220)," already refused to add it as an amendment. Some House Republican supported adding the extension to the House passed jobs training bill, HR 803 the "Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act" sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., but that never amounted to anything.

President Obama routinely stays out of negotiating with Congress despite Speaker Boehner's pleas to negotiate with the president on a variety of issues. Sen. Heller thinks it is important for Obama to be "involved" in negotiations; "The president needs to get more involved in this discussion right now. I know it's important to him. … I do believe that if the president would be more engaged on this particular topic we could get something done."

Reed and Heller are currently working on a new stand-alone bill that will fits Boehner's demands, however they do not think it is possible or the Senate to add job creation measures to the any bill. They consider that is something the House would have to do, and then be resolved in conference negotiations with the Senate. Heller is now desperate and wants the House to pass the bill with any provisions added, as long as they pass the bill. Senate Heller explained his position; "I tell them 'I don't care, just pass something, get it over here, we'll negotiate it in conference,' Get what you want in the bill, do whatever the House has to do."

Presently a new bill will cost $2 billion a week and will be paid for by revenue, with a possible year extension or at least until the end of 2014. Speaking of how long the extension would be Heller expressed that it was not quite decided and "It would probably have to be a prospective UI bill until the end of the year or for a full year." 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 and Reed are currently looking to for enough Republicans supporters to sponsor it, to ensure passage of a new Senate vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-NV already promised to put the completed bill to a Senate vote this summer.

In an attempt to move legislation forward, with both Senate sponsors and ensuring the bill reaches a vote in the House, Heller had dinner on Monday evening, June 9, according to Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call with Republicans from both the House and Senate. Among those in attendance was House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA third in the House's leadership ranks. One of the topics discussed was the unemployment benefits extension, which Heller says "is always a topic of discussion; as to what they think they could live with."

Heller told the press that support for the benefits extension in the GOP House is low; he more preciously defined it as "shallow support." Heller also explained that it is it important to Boehner and the House Republicans that Obama get involved, stating that "The House's position is that the president needs to step up with an agreed-to job creation [provision] in the bill. And he hasn't done it at this point and that has been Speaker's position all along and they remain in that particular position."

The House has not but can still pass the Heller-Reed bill that expired on May 31, 2014, but will probably not. The original bill provided retroactive benefits for five-months from the time the EUC program expired on Dec. 28, 2013 until June 1, 2014 and was paid full with revenue. Other options include adding the bill as an amendment to popular must pass bipartisan bills including the business tax cuts extenders "S.2260 - EXPIRE Act of 2014" and the Highway Trust Fund bill "S.2322: MAP-21 Reauthorization Act." The highway bill, which is now facing two different incarnations in the House and Senate, the bill must pass this summer with "100,000 transportation projects" and "700,000 construction jobs" on the line.

Over three million long-term jobless Americans, unemployed for more than 27 weeks desperately need the benefits to survive, and each week over 70,000 keep losing benefits. Although the total unemployment rate keeps falling each month, the long-term jobless rate in May remains high at 3.4 million or 34.6 percent of all unemployed Americans, just slightly lower than in April. Older workers 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.

The longer these workers are out of a job the harder it is for them to find work, since employers prefer the short-term unemployed. The EUC program's renewal is essential to the long-term unemployed's survival, economic growth and future of the workforce, with many long-term jobless dropping out of actively looking for work. Now, according to a new Gallup poll long-term jobless suffer at high rates from depression, which affects their prospects for getting a job and maintaining one after they do acquire one. New reports also indicate that the Great Recession caused over 1000 suicides, showing how necessary renewing benefits can be for not only the wealth, but the health of the nation.

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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.