GOP working on unemployment reforms

Republicans on Capitol Hill are working on a new plan to extend unemployment benefits that would reform the system so prisoners and people making more than $100,000 annually would not be eligible for the payments.

GOP members in both the House and Senate have been working on a strategy to extend the benefits, which are politically popular but have attracted criticism by some in the Tea Party. 

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In the last Congress, most Republicans said they were for moving an unemployment benefits package, while others said they were opposed — even if the benefits were offset. The benefit bill that ultimately cleared Congress was not offset.

This year, Republicans are eyeing a new strategy of passing a benefits bill that is paid for and includes eligibility reforms.

House GOP leaders are aiming to vote next week on a bill that would extend unemployment benefits and the payroll-tax cut. Sensing the upper hand as Republicans have sought to get on the same page, Democrats have been hammering the GOP on both issues this week. 

Jobless benefits are set to expire at the end of the month; the nation’s unemployment rate is 9 percent. 

The “goal” of the yet-to-be-released Republican measure will be to fully offset the benefits, and is likely to bar people making more than $100,000 a year from receiving benefits. 

This means-test strategy is seen as a counter to Democrats’ criticism that the GOP tax policy protects millionaires and billionaires.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a former House member who opposed extending the benefits last year, said he would support an extension this year if it was paid for and reformed the program to ensure that certain individuals do not receive the money. 

“Like all the people who have been collecting unemployment who are in prison, like all the people who are collecting unemployment who are on disability, all the people who have an adjusted gross income larger than $100,000 a year but [are] still collecting unemployment,” Coburn said. “If we paid for it and made 95 percent of the money go for the unemployed, instead of consuming it in the bureaucracy in getting it to them, I could vote for that.” 

Aware of the political ramifications of failing to extend unemployment benefits, some conservatives are blaming the need for action on the “Obama economy.” 

This is a marked difference from prior years when right-wing members argued against extending the 99-week benefit to individuals who lost their jobs. 

Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) told The Hill that these are no ordinary times. 

“The extension of unemployment is a recognition that the Obama economy has failed. And what is happening now is the Obama economy is failing and he’s expanding the welfare state and turning unemployment benefits into a welfare program that is now rife with corruption and perverse incentives,” DeMint said, noting that he is working with “a number of House and Senate Republicans” and their leadership on a proposal to reform the program. 

House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said leaders are tackling the extension of unemployment insurance and “making progress on the types of reforms that are very attractive to our members.” 

House Republicans will meet Friday morning to discuss the GOP plan and the potential offsets.

Roskam told The Hill in June 2010 that he didn’t want to extend unemployment insurance, even if it was paid for — a clear signal that times have changed with the GOP now controlling the lower chamber. 

In a floor speech Thursday, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) suggested that Republicans would rather allow the benefits to expire — in effect “blaming the victim” — than work with Democrats. He also pointed out GOP vulnerability on the matter. 

“Congress has never allowed emergency unemployment benefits to lapse with our jobless rate anywhere close to where it is today,” Hoyer said. “If it did, over 17,000 people in my state of Maryland would see their lifeline cut off by February. In Ohio, Speaker Boehner’s home state, 80,000 people are at risk.” 

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) this week indicated it would be reprehensible for Congress to adjourn for the holidays before clearing an unemployment measure.

If a bill isn’t signed into law by Dec. 31, 2.1 million people could lose their benefits by mid-February, and 6.1 million would see their checks vanish by the end of next year, according to the National Employment Law Project. The maximum amount of time people can be on unemployment is 99 weeks. 

The cost of extending the federal unemployment benefits for a year is $44 billion.

Some Republicans are conflicted over what to do.

GOP freshman Rep. Morgan Griffith (Va.) said he has “mixed feelings about it.” 

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The soft-spoken lawmaker explained that “we’re in unusually bad times. That means you sometimes have to take steps that might not normally seem appropriate, but my district has a lot of unemployment and I have to take that into consideration.” 

Rolling an unpaid-for unemployment extension into a payroll-tax-cut package would not likely fly with GOP House members. 

Freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said there would be “strenuous pushback” if leaders attempted to make such a move. 

Leadership is unlikely to do that, though it is aware of the options that rank-and-file members are discussing.

House GOP Policy Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) listed several options: “Maybe a step down in the level of benefits so that you wean folks off of it, decrease the amount of time [an individual can receive unemployment insurance].” 

In the end, Price said, he believes that with the right combination of reforms and pay-fors, Republicans will rally behind an extension. 

“I think there’s a fairly positive view of it if there are real reforms within the program,” he said. “That’s the direction in which we need to move.”