Reid Urges Republicans to Drop Offset on Jobless Benefits

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, right, and Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, attend a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged Republicans to agree to a three-month extension of expanded unemployment benefits without insisting on spending reductions elsewhere to pay for it.

Republicans signaled they aren’t giving in. Senators Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman, who voted with Democrats yesterday to keep the proposal alive, said they would seek to block a final vote on the bill unless lawmakers adopt offsetting cuts.

Aid for the long-term unemployed was extended multiple times during President George W. Bush’s administration without being offset in the budget, Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today on the Senate floor in Washington.

“I am opposed to offsetting the cost of emergency unemployment benefits,” Reid said, calling for swift action on Democrats’ three-month extension. “And then we’ll work to see if we can come up with a long-term solution to this issue.”

Republicans reiterated their demand that Congress find a way to cover the $6.4 billion cost of a three-month revival of benefits that expired Dec. 28. In a surprise 60-37 vote yesterday, six Republicans joined Democrats to provide the 60 votes needed to advance the bill.

House Speaker John Boehner said today his chamber would consider an extension of benefits “if it was paid for and if there were provisions that we could agree to that would get our economy moving again and put the American people back to work.”

Republican Proposals

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cited several proposals Republicans have made to offset the measure’s cost.

“If the majority leader wants this bill to pass the Senate, then he’s likely going to have to find a way to pay for it,” said McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

A group of Senate Republicans held a news conference to call for a vote on an amendment proposed by Ayotte of New Hampshire. It would require people who seek certain refundable child tax credits to have Social Security numbers. The measure is aimed at combating fraud and stopping undocumented immigrants from collecting the credits.

Republicans at the event said adoption of the amendment would gain their support for extending jobless benefits.

“I will vote for the extension if you will pay for it,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Reid shot down the proposal, saying Congress shouldn’t “punish American children” to pay for the benefits.

1.3 Million

The emergency jobless benefits expired for 1.3 million Americans. The push to extend them marks the start of Democrats’ election-year focus on income inequality, in which Democrats also will push to raise the minimum wage and increase spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs.

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins said today she has spoken to President Barack Obama several times as he courted her vote. She said he was was “very receptive” to her proposal to link long-term unemployment benefits to job training

“I was very encouraged by the president’s response,” Collins said.

In addition to Collins, Ayotte and Portman of Ohio, Senate Republicans who supported advancing the legislation were Dean Heller of Nevada, Dan Coats of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

McConnell told reporters yesterday that if both parties find a way to fund the extension, “there may be a way forward.”

House Memo

In a sign that House Republican leaders are wary of potential political ramifications, they sent a memo to members yesterday urging them to be careful about how they talk about jobless benefits.

“For every American out of work, it’s a personal crisis for them and their family,” read one of the talking points in the memo received from a House leadership aide who requested anonymity.

Reid said today that Democrats “don’t need a memo for us to show compassion for the unemployed.” He added that it would be “very difficult” for Senate Republicans to claim they are compassionate to the unemployed if they oppose Democrats’ proposal.

House Democrats say Republicans are putting themselves in an awkward political position. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, called the unemployment situation “an economic hurricane for 1.4 million people and 72,000 more every week.”

Congress shouldn’t be “caught up in disagreements on the issue of funding while there’s this emergency,” Levin said.

99 Weeks

The expanded program started in 2008 and at one point provided as many as 99 weeks of benefits for the long-term unemployed. At the end of 2013 the maximum was 73 weeks, including 26 weeks of state-funded benefits.

The emergency benefits have been renewed 11 times since Bush put them in place in 2008, when the U.S. jobless rate was 5.6 percent. All extended benefits are covered by federal dollars, while initial jobless insurance comes from federal, state and employer funds.

Besides casting the measure as a moral imperative, Democrats are stepping up efforts to demonstrate the economic benefits of restoring the weekly payments.

Democrats say extended jobless benefits are an emergency measure that doesn’t need funding. “Congress has done this before, many, many times,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday.

Jobless Rate

Collins is the lone Senate Republican seeking re-election this year in a state Obama won in 2012. Coats, Heller and Portman all represent states where the November jobless rate was higher than the nationwide rate of 7 percent.

Heller said Republicans haven’t determined what they might ask for in exchange for an extension. Options may include restrictions on collecting disability and unemployment benefits at the same time, or reallocating money from funds that federal agencies didn’t spend before the end of the year.

South Dakota Senator John Thune said he would back a payroll tax break for businesses that hire long-term unemployed workers. Thune’s proposal would include low-interest loans to long-term unemployed workers who would have to relocate to take a new job.

None of those proposals have gained much support so far, and neither have ideas from Democrats. New York Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, has floated paying for the benefits by ending a tax break that lets U.S. companies deduct expenses when they move operations overseas.

Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen has suggested paying for the plan with cuts to agricultural subsidies.

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