Unemployment bill clears hurdle in Senate

The Senate voted 61-38 Wednesday to end debate on a measure that would restore federal benefits for the long-term unemployed, making final passage nearly certain this week.

Six Republicans helped Democrats clear the final Senate hurdle on legislation that would renew a federal unemployment insurance (UI) program for five months. 

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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 voted to end debate on a substitute amendment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to H.R. 3979. Reid used the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which passed the House last month, as a legislative vehicle. 

In the end, he kept the bill’s original language as well. 

The House bill aims to exempt volunteer firefighters and EMTs from being considered full-time employees under ObamaCare's employer mandate to provide insurance. 

Reid used that bill as a way to more easily send the UI extension bill back to the House, especially with Senate Democrats, many of whom are facing tough reelection races, demanding that tweaks be made to ObamaCare.

Reid’s amendment also included a plan from Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) that would provide retroactive benefits to more than 2 million people who lost their benefits after the program expired on Dec. 28.

“We’ve had millions of people in the last many months who have lost their unemployment benefits,” Reid said ahead of the vote. “Unemployment benefits stimulate the economy quicker and faster than any other thing.”

Republicans blocked three previous attempts to extend UI benefits, but this time, the legislation has five Republican co-sponsors, all of whom supported the cloture vote Wednesday. Heller and fellow GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Rob Portman (Ohio) were the five co-sponsors, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) joined them in voting to end debate.

The Senate measure would use several offsets to pay for the nearly $10 billion cost of the measure, 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 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.

But some Republicans wanted to add more job-creating provisions.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the goal should be to “help struggling Americans move from dependency to independency,” rather than simply extending “welfare” benefits.

He, along with several other GOP senators, offered amendments they said would help create jobs, such as repealing parts of ObamaCare, approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, enforcing the E-verify system and stopping Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“The Democrat Majority led us to believe the Senate would be discussing jobs this week," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. “But it seemed to be a pretty one-sided discussion."

Democrats argue that the benefits provide economic stimulus and that the program’s expiration cost the economy $4.7 billion in the first three months of the year.

Boehner also wanted some of those measures included in the legislation, but Senate passage could put pressure on him to allow a House vote.

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 more than three-month lapse.

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

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.