Senate advances unemployment bill

The Senate voted 65-34 Thursday to advance legislation that would restore federal unemployment benefits.

The test vote, which drew the support of 10 Republicans, likely clears the way for passage of legislation that would extend a federal unemployment insurance (UI) program for five months.

Action in the House appears unlikely, however, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he wouldn’t consider the Senate deal because it doesn’t include job-creating measures. 

The Senate ended debate on the motion to proceed to H.R. 3979, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which will be used as the legislative vehicle for the jobless aid proposal. 

The Republicans who voted in favor of advancing the bill were: Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.).

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The vote sets up 30 hours of debate before proceeding to the bill, but lawmakers have said they expect a vote on final passage by Friday. 

Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) have put together a plan that would provide retroactive benefits to more than 2 million people who lost their benefits after the program expired on Dec. 28.

The Senate has failed to pass two other UI extensions, but this time, the legislation has five Republican co-sponsors, meaning it could overcome the 60-vote threshold of a filibuster.

It would use several offsets to pay for the nearly $10 billion cost of extending the benefits, including pension smoothing provisions from the 2012 highway bill, which were set to phase out this year, and extending customs user fees through 2024.

The Senate deal also includes an additional offset allowing single-employer pension plans to prepay their flat rate premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC).

The measure would also prevent millionaires and billionaires from receiving the federal benefits.

The proposal also includes language to strengthen re-employment and eligibility assessment (REA) and re-employment services (RES) programs, which provide help to unemployed workers, when they enter their 27th week of benefits.

Earlier this month, the House passed H.R. 3979, which aims to exempt volunteer firefighters and EMTs from being considered full-time employees under ObamaCare employer mandates. Reid will use that bill as a way to send the UI extension bill back to the House.

Senate passage could put pressure on Boehner to act.

The Speaker has cited a letter from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) that expressed technical concerns about providing retroactive benefits, among other issues stemming from the nearly three-month lapse. 

But Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and other advocates have argued that the problems could be overcome to continue the program.

"All the administrative challenges to the states pale in comparison to the challenges of our constituents out of work," Reed said Thursday.

"We would hope that the House would respond appropriately, so we can give some hope and confidence to people struggling to find jobs in this economy."

Conservative group Heritage Action urged senators to vote against the UI bill.

The emergency federal program kicks in once workers who have continued looking for a new job exhaust their state-level benefits, usually after 26 weeks.

— This story was updated at 3 p.m.

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