House GOP to shift focus from cuts to consider bill on job-training programs

House Republicans will move off their relentless focus on spending cuts next week to consider a bill aimed at improving and streamlining federal worker training programs.

Republican leaders said Tuesday they would bring to the floor the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act, which would reauthorize a Clinton-era workforce investment law while consolidating dozens of job-training programs.

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The bill would mark the first House vote on legislation highlighted as part of Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s “Making Life Work” agenda, a set of proposals unveiled in a speech last month designed to broaden the GOP’s fiscal focus and target measures to issues that more directly affect voters’ lives.

Policymakers in both parties have pointed to improved job training as a priority during the sluggish economic recovery, in which employers have complained that long-term unemployment and technological advancements have resulted in job openings that go unfilled because applicants don’t have the requisite skills.

“That is a bill that I think both sides can come together on,” Cantor (R-Va.) said Tuesday, “and to provide assistance for those who don’t have the right kind of training or skills so they can access the unfilled jobs that are out there in many of the industry sectors.”

In the months following the November election, Cantor and other Republican leaders have spoken of the need for the GOP to avoid being seen simply as the party of austerity by finding other appealing policy ideas that conservatives can rally around.

The ongoing budget wars have made that difficult, and party leaders found themselves once again holding a press conference in front of a banner touting spending cuts.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged, however, that like President Obama, the House GOP wanted to tackle other issues.

Obama has called for restructuring job-training programs, a push that has given the Republican legislation the imprimatur of bipartisanship.

Yet House Democrats and advocate groups are pushing separate legislation, and say the Republican bill goes too far in eliminating federal programs.

The opposition could make for a challenging vote next week for House GOP leaders, who did not bring the legislation to the floor in the last Congress.

They have struggled to unite their narrower majority in support of the Republican legislation so far this year.

“This is all related to public relations,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, which will mark up the SKILLS Act on Wednesday.

“It’s not related to getting people back to work. It’s not related to getting people the training they need, and it’s not related to making sure that those people who need the most help get back into the economy and get taken care of. This is just part of the public relations campaign of Mr. Cantor’s speech.”

Miller predicted there would be “very little, if any” Democratic support.

“This just hasn’t been a bipartisan process at all,” he said. “They may get it off the floor, but it’s unacceptable in the Senate. So it’s unfortunate.”

The author of the Republican bill, Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), dismissed Miller’s criticism, and argued that her proposal was closer to the reform that Obama had envisioned.

“The unfortunate thing is we’re doing what the president asked,” she said. “The president said, get rid of this maze of programs. Come up with a one-stop program. The Democrats’ bill adds two programs and does nothing to consolidate, so it’s about as far away from what the president said he wanted as could possibly be.

“So if they want to continue down that road, then that’s fine,” Foxx said of the Democrats, “but we’re doing what the American people want and what the president wants. That’s bipartisanship.”

A GOP leadership aide said “a significant portion of our members” support the SKILLS Act, but stopped short of guaranteeing its passage on the floor.

“We will have the votes on the committee to pass it, and I think we will have the votes in the conference,” Foxx said.

Rachel Gragg, federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition, praised the Democratic legislation and said the GOP bill went about streamlining training programs in the wrong way by combining them all into a single block grant.

“It’s almost like consolidating for consolidation’s sake,” she said.

Gragg also voiced concern that because the $6 billion authorization in the Republican bill is treated as a ceiling, it would leave the program vulnerable to future cuts, perhaps as soon as when the Republicans unveil their budget for fiscal 2014.

The Democratic bill, by contrast, “at a minimum maintains current funding and in some cases increases funding,” Gragg said.