Senate moves on unemployment bill

 

The Senate approved an amendment by voice vote Thursday that provides a five-month extension to long-term unemployment benefits.

The Senate then voted 61-35 to end debate on the Senate-amended bill, H.R. 3979, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is using as a legislative vehicle for the extension. 

Final passage is expected Monday evening, putting pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to allow a House vote on the bipartisan measure. However, he has said he wouldn’t consider the Senate deal because it doesn’t include job-creating measures.

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Six Republicans helped Democrats clear Senate hurdles on legislation. Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) voted to end debate on the underlying bill.

The Senate vote Thursday was to pass a substitute amendment to the bill, but it also kept the House bill’s original language. 

The House-passed 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 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.

The bipartisan plan attached to the House bill was from Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Heller and would provide retroactive benefits to more than 2 million people who lost their benefits after the program expired on Dec. 28.

Republicans blocked three previous attempts to extend the benefits, but this time, the legislation had five Republican co-sponsors, making passage certain next week.

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. 

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

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

But many Republicans still oppose the bill because they weren’t able to add “job-creating” amendments such as repealing parts of ObamaCare, approving construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, enforcing the E-Verify hiring system and stopping Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“All week, Republicans have been coming to the floor to talk about our proposals to ignite job creation and get the economy back on track,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday. “All we’re asking is for those ideas to get fair consideration.”

Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also raised a budget point of order against the bill because he said it would add to the long-term deficit, but Democrats waived his motion on a 60-36 vote Thursday.

“This unemployment insurance violates the budget,” Sessions said. “We should not pass it.”

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

In expressing opposition to the Senate bill, Boehner also cited a letter from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies that expressed technical concerns about providing retroactive benefits, among other issues stemming from more than three-month lapse.

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

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