With a bipartisan vote of 65 for and 34 against, the Senate voted on Thursday afternoon, March 27, 2014 to pass a cloture vote and end the filibuster moving the unemployment benefits extension bill forward towards a full senate vote on the legislation. Nearly three months after the law expired on Dec. 28, 2013 the bill is finally again moving forward bringing hope to the 2.24 million Americans that have already lost benefits. However, the clock is ticking for the House of Representatives to pass the bill.
The Senate reached a deal to extend long-term jobless unemployment benefits on Thursday, March 13 was considered a breakthrough in the deadlock after benefits expired on Dec. 28, 2013 and any Senate votes were stalled from Thursday, Feb 6, 2014.
The bill required 60 votes to pass the cloture vote, ending the filibuster and a major procedural hurdle. Since the bill had the support of all 55 Democrats in the Senate and five Republicans have committed themselves to the deal, this ensured the 60 necessary votes to pass the Senate. In the end five more Republicans decided to vote for the moving the extension bill forward.
In total 10 Republicans voted for moving the bill forward, five more than was originally believed would vote for the bill. According to Roll Call, the Republicans that voted for the bill included; "Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Dean Heller of Nevada, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania."
The Senate bill would extend unemployment benefits for two million long-term jobless that lost benefits at the end of last year. The deal 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 covered by revenue acquired as ABC News reports through "pensions smoothing", "extending customs user fees through 2024", and changes to private corporate pension funds. The bill ensures that those who made a yearly salary above a million dollars will not eligible for unemployment benefits.
The bill also includes elements to help get the jobless back to work including "skills assessment and referral programs." Previous disagreements with Republicans regarding extending the benefits usually revolved covering the cost without adding to the deficit.
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; Heller along with "Sens. Susan Collins, R-ME; Rob Portman, R-OH; Lisa Murkowski, R-AK; Mark Kirk, R-IL" Additionally five Democrats, Reed and "Jeff Merkley, D-OR.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sherrod Brown, D-OH; and Dick Durbin, D-IL" support the extension bill.
After the vote the bill's co-author Sen. Reed issued a statement praising the bipartisan vote; "Today's bipartisan vote was a step in the right direction, but it is unconscionable that millions of Americans have had to wait this long for Congress to act and there is no reason this bipartisan solution should be further delayed. The votes are there for final passage in the Senate. People are hurting and need this emergency assistance." While co-author Sen. Heller also commended the bipartisan vote; "Today, the Senate overcame another hurdle and is one step closer to providing unemployed Americans some much-needed relief."
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, R-OH opposes the Senate bipartisan deal to extend unemployment for the long term jobless. Boehner again expressed reservations about extending benefits in a press conference held on Wednesday, March 26, saying; "The administration wants to crow about this lower unemployment rate. And the fact is, the unemployment rate is coming down. But the American people are still asking the question, where are the jobs?"
Boehner thinks creating jobs is more important than extending benefits, saying the Senate should focus on passing job creating bills than a long-terms benefits extension. Boehner continued; "I made clear that if we were going to consider extending emergency unemployment - let's all be clear here, we're not talking about regular unemployment insurance which will go up to six months for anyone that's employed; these are benefits beyond six months - I made clear that if we're going to consider dealing with emergency unemployment, we've got to do something about creating better jobs in America, higher wages in America. The Senate is sitting on dozens of bills that we sent over there. I think it's time for the Senate to work with the House to help get the economy moving again. That's the real issue."
Boehner made an announcement at his Tuesday morning press conference on March 25, 2014 in the Capitol, where he stated that Senate bill was "not implementable," and not "workable." Boehner again reiterated that he is concerned about backing dating the benefit checks from the time the unemployed benefits were cut off in the end of December until the bill's passage. He believes in the three months, there are some unemployed that found work, and it is difficult to determine who deserves the checks, and until when they actually went back to work.
Boehner explained; "The state directors are saying, 'We don't know who went back to work, we don't know who is still out there, so we would have to send checks to everybody. I don't think taxpayers expect us to do that. So I don't see how that is workable."
What Boehner was referring to was that after the unemployment benefits extension program lapsed for such a long time, the states stopped verifying the long-term unemployed that were receiving benefits to see if they continued to qualify. Without that information, it becomes difficult to track who actually still deserves to receive the retroactive benefits the Senate bill plans on giving. This is at least the problem Boehner is insisting the House has with the Senate bill. There have been some states; however that have continued checking eligibility.
The House Ways and Means Committee issued a statement on Wednesday, March 26 on having the same problem, saying; "This meant that during that lapse, States continued to take claims in anticipation of an agreement. States went about verifying weekly eligibility, as if the program were operating, and then just held the claims without paying them until the President signed the law. This time around, without action from either the House or Senate, States have long since stopped verifying weekly eligibility and holding claims."
Additionally, Boehner expressed he wants further revisions to the bill that will include more "job-creation measures." Boehner stated to the press; "I told the president I would consider this as long as it was paid for and as long as there are provisions that help improve the economy." Still the speaker is ignoring the Congressional Budget Office, who claims extending benefits for all of 2014 would actually create 200,000 jobs.
This the second time in a week that the speaker has made excuses about bringing the House of the Representatives to a vote about the Senate compromise. Last Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Boehner used first as a an excuse to oppose the extension a letter from the National Association of State Work Force Agencies (NASWA) sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY.
The NASWA letter stated the Senate's bill "would cause considerable delays in the implementation of the program and increased administrative issues and costs," and that "Some states have indicated they might decide such changes are not feasible in the short time available, and therefore would consider not signing the U.S. Department of Labor's agreement to operate the program." The speaker had his aides distribute the letter to reporters and posted it online.
Boehner also issued a statement expressing that the letter demonstrates that the Senate proposal is flawed and that the NASWA letter was a "cause for serious concern." The speaker wrote; "We have always said that we're willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Washington Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally-responsible, and gets to the root of the problem by helping to create more private-sector jobs. There is no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by Leader Reid meets that test, and according to these state directors, the bill is also simply unworkable. Frankly, a better use of the Senate's time would be taking up and passing the dozens of House-passed jobs bills still awaiting action."
Promptly on Friday, March 21, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez sent a letter to the Senate promising that there would be a smooth implementation, dismissing the NASWA letter. Perez wrote; "I am confident there are workable solutions for all of the concerns raised by NASWA…. We are certain that any challenges pale in comparison to the need that the long-term unemployed have for these benefits."
Fellow Republican Sen. Dean Heller, R-NV, who is one of the co-authors of the bill lashed out at Boehner's excuses, saying; "No matter what solution is reached, there is some excuse to deny these much-needed benefits. I look forward to passing this proposal out of the Senate next week, and stand ready to help the Speaker, as well as any organization or any individual necessary, in order to make this extension a reality."
While an angry House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA stated at her press conference on Thursday, March 20; "Here we go again, Washington Republicans have painted themselves into the far extreme." The Senate "came to a compromise on a length of time and a pay-for… This is a stimulus to the economy. Ask any economist. … We want to create jobs."
Since Dec. 28, 2013 2.24 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. The total long-term unemployment rate is 2.5 percent, while the total unemployment rate was 6.7 percent a point more the 6.6 percent in February.
Since January the Senate has been working on a compromise bill that would extend the benefits and satisfy Republicans who have been finding excuse after excuse not to agree to extend the benefits. Republicans primarily wanted the bill's price tag covered without adding to the deficit. But since then Boehner has been insisting the bill add an element help get workers off benefits and back to work. 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.
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."
Senate Majority Leader Reid does not see Boehner opposition as the end of the extending of extending unemployment benefits, and he plans to work with the speaker and incorporate any changes necessary to ensure the bill passes. Last Wednesday, March 19 Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson stated; "The Senate has forged a bipartisan compromise to reform and extend unemployment benefits. We believe the concerns that have been expressed are resolvable and we look forward to Speaker Boehner coming to the table to find solutions. It is hard to imagine Speaker Boehner simply walking away from the thousands of people in Ohio who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and need this lifeline to make ends meet while they continue to look for work."
CBS News also reports that the "Democrats are filing a discharge petition" to force Republicans to put an unemployment extension bill to a vote. The petition requires a majority of the House to sign to ensure a vote, so far however, over 100 Democrats have signed the petition, but not enough to force the bill to a vote.
According to Heller the bill move to a full Senate vote next week, Heller expressed that after the bill has passed then the Senate will start negotiating with the House to pass the bill. Heller explained; "We'll start that conversation next week. I think the important thing right now is that we get this bill out, get it over there and let them know that there's a real desire for this kind of change. I think we'll be able to iron out whatever their issues or problems are."
Heller is not worried about the House Republicans wanting to change or modify the bill; he just wants them to pass an extension. Heller pointed out; "I knew that [House Republicans] would have some issues with it. It sounds like they want to get something done, in general terms. ... Whether it looks like what the Senate passes or not, that is for them to decide."
Time however, is not on the bill's side; Congress goes on a two-week recess on April 10, and has only 8 business days left until then. This leaves the House with very little time to either pass the Senate's present bill, which is highly unlikely, and is even tighter if the House were to pass their own bill which would then require the Senate to again pass another unemployment extension bill. If action is not taken to pass a bill before April 10, Congress will not be able to anything until April 28, when they return.
- Senate Session, C-SPAN, March 27, 2014
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.