Parties reach deal on workforce act

House and Senate negotiators on Wednesday announced a bipartisan deal to consolidate federal job training programs in a rare election-year breakthrough. 

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act would eliminate 15 federal programs and overhaul requirements throughout the job training system in a bid to help job seekers gain valuable employment skills.

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The congressional agreement is a compromise between the House-passed Skills Act and a Senate bill that advanced out of committee last year but never received a floor vote.

It’s also a victory for House GOP leaders who have touted the job-training bill for months as an area where they could find common ground with the Obama administration and Senate Democrats.

Top House Republicans cited the Skills Act as one of four potential avenues for compromise in a letter they sent to President Obama after his State of the Union address. In recent weeks, aides had suggested that a deal could help restore trust between the GOP and the administration in advance of possible action on a much more contentious issue, immigration reform.

“Not only must we ensure that government is not standing in the way of businesses creating jobs, but we must also ensure that government is not impeding the ability of people seeking jobs to gain the skills for available jobs,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who had made the bill a part of his “Making Life Work” agenda. 

Cantor said the House would vote on the bill as soon as it clears the Senate, adding that he hoped it would lead to more bipartisan agreements, particularly on jobs bills that the House has already passed.

“Dozens of other House passed pieces of legislation that help grow our economy and create jobs remain stalled in the Senate, and I hope this is a sign of more action to come,” he said in a statement.

The agreement was struck by a bipartisan group of seven House and Senate members, including the fourth-ranking Senate Democrat, Patty Murray (Wash.), and the chairmen of the committees in charge of workforce issues, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is retiring at the end of the year.

Republicans involved in the negotiations said Wednesday that while they compromised on many details, the agreement adhered to four central principles they had included in the Skills Act: consolidation of programs, increased accountability metrics, a focus on training for “in-demand” jobs and lower administrative costs.

The GOP’s Skills Act called for eliminating 35 federal programs, while the Senate version would have scrapped six. In the end, the negotiators compromised at 15. 

“The elimination of some duplicative programs was important to us,” Kline said in an interview.

While the House passed its bill more than a year ago, it was not until late in 2013 that talks between the two chambers began in earnest, lawmakers and aides said.

Negotiators said the federal workforce laws, first written in 1998, had been overdue for reauthorization for more than a decade. The new agreement is a six-year bill. It has yet to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office though, and aides said there was no timetable yet for when it might come up for a Senate vote.

While Kline and the author of the House bill, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), took the lead in the lower chamber, Murray and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) led the Senate’s side of the talks. Murray told The Hill the discussions were helped by the fact that her office is adjacent to Isakson’s.

In a floor speech, Isakson admitted the two parties began far apart.

“We sat down at a long table and talked about the art of the possible, not the art of the impossible,” he said. 

Kline said they reached a point in April where an agreement was reached and spent the last several weeks finalizing details and writing the legislative text.

The White House praised the lawmakers in a statement but stopped short of voicing explicit support for the legislation.

“While we are still reviewing the compromise package they have produced, it’s noteworthy that they represent a cross-section of Congress and came together in good faith to design a bill that is intended to move the economy forward,” spokesman Bobby Whithorne said.

Republicans have voiced frustration with Obama’s move to take executive actions on job training when he knew lawmakers were still coming to a broader agreement. Negotiators said the White House was not involved in their talks beyond providing technical assistance.

While the House bill kept funding at 2012 levels, the final agreement authorizes a 17 percent increase through 2020 in line with spending in the budget agreement that Murray struck with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in December. 

The bill reduces the size of state and local workforce boards, but it retains a federal youth training program and many protections for migrant, seasonal and Native American workers that were either eliminated or turned into block grants in the House bill.

The accountability measures would require programs demonstrate that they had met thresholds for job placement and wages or risk losing funds, an aide said.

Republicans also highlighted a new focus on skills training for specific in-demand jobs as well as caps on overhead costs for programs. Democrats said they were pleased that they increased emphasis on youth training and kept in place provisions giving flexibility to governors and localities.

This story was updated at 8:00 p.m.

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