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Levin launches Witness Wednesdays to pressure GOP to pass unemployment extension

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Rep. Sander Levin, D-MI the Ranking Democratic Member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives is continuing his campaign to pressure the Republicans in the House to pass an extension of unemployment benefits. Levin has launched Witness Wednesdays, featuring personal anecdotes and stories for some of the three million Americans that have lost benefits since the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EU) program expired on Dec. 28, 2013. "Witness Wednesdays: Voices of the Unemployed" launched on Wednesday, June 11, 2013 and will take place each Wednesday in June and July at the House Triangle on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The events feature personal stories of those suffering from losing their unemployment benefits are being read at lunch time, 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. each week.

The "Witness Wednesdays" events have been scheduled for the following dates; June 18, June 25, July 9, July 16, July 23, and July 30. Each time the events will be held at 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. except on June 25 when the event will be held at 3 p.m. The week of where there is July 4th, Independence Day there will not be an event that Wednesday, July 2. The program is being instituted in conjunction with the Center for Effective Government, the National Employment Law Project, the Coalition on Human Needs and the National Women's Law Center. Those institutions have "collected" 2,000 anecdotes and stories from those affected. Levin is also posting to the Democrats Ways and Means Committee website personal stories submitted to the site.

Rep. Levin explained the importance of making public the personal stories of the long-term unemployed affeced by the expired EUC program and the House GOP's unwillingness to pass the bill. Levin expressed; "Every day the number of Americans harmed by the expiration of unemployment insurance grows. They are desperately seeking new jobs, in many cases having exhausted their savings, seen their homes foreclosed on, let bills go unpaid, and run out of money needed to just put gas in their cars to go on an interview. In many cases their situation is dire, but their voices will not be quieted."

Among those in attendance were "members of Congress and faith, labor, civil rights, and nonprofit leaders" including Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. who spoke to the press. Like Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., the co-author and sponsor of the Senate passed bill Cicilline represents Rhode Island, the state with the largest percentage of long-term unemployment in the nation, with Nevada a close second, Sen. Dean Heller's, R-NV state, who is the other co-author and sponsor of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014.

The Heller-Reed bill passed by the Senate on April 7 featured five months of retroactive benefits from Dec. 28 until June 1, 2014 and was paid with revenue. The bill never went beyond the committee stage in the House, but many Democrats and Sen. Heller still think the House can act on it if they would want to. The problem is Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH who objects to the bill not including job creation measures and the fact that the bill is retroactive, since he does not think the states have kept up an accurate count of those ineligible for benefits in the intervening months since the bill expired.

Rep. Cicilline explained the purpose of the seven events; "Witness Wednesday is another effort to tell the stories of what it means for hardworking people who have done everything right, who have worked hard, played by the rules and have hit a tough time." Calling it "un-American," Cicilline believes "It's clear by their inaction that unemployed people have become invisible to the House Republican leadership."

While Rep. Dan Kildee, D-MI who was also at the event says that for the House Democrats trying to get the bill to a vote has both "frustrating," and a "one-sided conversation." The House Democrats started a discharge petition in March to force a vote in the House; they collected 193 signatures, but could not accumulate the 218 needed. Kildee continued that "It's a shame that there's no indication from Republicans that they even see this as an issue worth bringing up." However, he still believes that if they would want the House Republicans can pass the Senate passed Heller-Reid bill, explaining; "Obviously that wouldn't solve the problem going forward, but it would restore some degree of stability for those families."

Rep. Levin has been ramping up his pressure on all involved to work together and pass an extension. Levin wrote an opinion piece published on June 8, 2014 in Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call urging Congress especially the Republican majority in the House to pass an extension (EUC) program. Levin is urging President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Boehner, and Congress to work to find a way to extend unemployment benefits for America's long-term jobless. Levin called the House not extending the program and putting the bill to a vote "cruel" to "hardworking Americans."

Rep. Levin believes that not extending benefits affects" the economy," "the long-term career prospects of these workers," and "the American workforce." Levin indicated that there were three options, pass a standalone unemployment benefits extension bill, are adding it as an amendment to the either the must pass 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. Levin believes "We should include a six-month extension of unemployment insurance alongside either of these legislative packages," and that would result in "a win-win solution."

The Michigan representative has long been an advocate for extending benefits. This is the second time he has personally tried to highlight the personal plight of the long-term jobless affected by the loss of benefits. Previously on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 Levin personally pressured Boehner to pass the Heller-Reed bill by sending him a letter that featured over 50 personal anecdotes submitted and chosen to be included "describe how getting cut off of benefits has affected them." Levin recounted how quickly he received these stories, saying "During the course of just a few hours last week, more than five dozen Americans submitted their stories to the Ways and Means Committee after simply being asked to describe how getting cut off of benefits has affected them." The letter put a personal face on the Americans the House would be helping if they would pass the unemployment benefits extension.

This is also Congressional Democrats second foray into showcasing the personal stories of the long-term unemployed. On Tuesday, May 6, 2014 a "Democratic Steering and Policy hearing" on the unemployment extension turned into a press conference on the Capitol's steps after the Republicans refused to let the Democrats use the room to discuss the unemployment benefits extension bill. Democrats in the Education and the Workforce Committee, and headed by both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-MD hosted the event, and it was attended by some House Democrats.

The Democrats had invited seven Americas affected by the expiring of the EUC program to recount the problems and hardships they have experience since the EUC expired in December. The press conference was held on the Capitol building's steps at 2:30 p.m. The Democrats looked to include heart wrenching stories, which also proved to the reluctant Republicans that the long-term jobless do not want to live off the government as they accuse, but that they desperately want a job and to work. One by one the seven long-term jobless spoke on the Capitol steps. Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call described the press conference as "designed to paint Republicans as heartless."

Currently, Heller and Reed are working on a new bill, which will cost $2 billion a week bill will be paid for by revenue, with a possible year extension or at least until the end of 2014, however because of controversy and objections it also not be retroactive. As for the job creation elements that have been essential to Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH the Senate still cannot add them to a bill, but Heller is extremely flexible, and is open to any provision the Republicans wants as long as they pass the bill. Currently the most popular provision is repealing the medical device tax of the health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

According to a counter now installed on the Democrats Ways and Means Committee website there are now over three million long-term jobless Americans, unemployed for more than 27 weeks, and each week around 72,000 lose benefits. They desperately need the benefits to survive and "pay their rent, utility bills, and transportation while they seek new work." The long-term jobless rate in May remains high at 3.4 million or 34.6 percent of all unemployed Americans, just falling slightly 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 one of the major points Witlessness Wednesday hopes to remind Republicans.

The whole House agenda now seems up in the air and in disarray since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA loss his primary to his Tea Party opponent David Brat on Tuesday, June 10. There is now concern Republican leadership will be too afraid to even consider any moderate legislation, because of the Tea Party is gaining momentum in the primaries with Cantor's loss. Still at up for grabs Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran a "six-term incumbent" is facing a runoff later this month with state Sen. Chris McDaniel his "Tea Party challenger," when neither managed to reach 50 percent of the vote in the Tuesday June, 3 primary. Republicans are desperate to regain control of the Senate, and would lose the election in McDaniel wins. Maybe Tea Party candidates have support in Republican primaries, but they would not have votes from independents and could lose seats in the general election with Tea Party candidates on the ticket.

The House GOP still worries about Tea Party upsets in the remaining primaries. The fact that Cantor was considering put immigration reform to a vote this summer and allowing some sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants is the reason many attribute to his primary demise. Immigration reform will probably not be voted in the House now, and with it possibly votes on other moderate legislation and agenda including extending unemployment benefits. Rep. Cicilline thinks that it will be more detrimental to the House Republicans to ignore these issues. Republicans should worry less about Tea Party challengers in the primaries than disgruntled voters in the general election. Cicilline concluded that "If the Republican House leadership thinks the answer to yesterday's election is to do nothing, I think they're in for a rude awakening come November, because the American people have had it. They want things done."

RELATED LINKS

  • S.2260 - EXPIRE Act of 2014, Sen. Wyden, Ron [D-OR] (Introduced 04/28/2014), 05/07/2014 Motion to proceed to consideration of measure made in Senate. S. Rept. 113-154

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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