Boehner open to extending unemployment benefits

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remains open to an extension of emergency unemployment benefits even in the face of growing conservative opposition to such a move.

The Ohio Republican maintains the position he expressed last month that Republicans would “clearly consider” an extension of federal help for the long-term unemployed “as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Friday.

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At the same time, a number of Republicans – including leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee – continue to question the need to extend the unemployment insurance (UI) benefits at all.

“Despite a dozen extensions, academic research suggests the program has actually hurt, rather than helped, the job creation that the unemployed need most,” Michelle Dimarob, spokesperson for Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), said Friday in a statement.  

“It is time to focus on policies that will actually lead to real economic opportunities for families who are trying to get back on their feet and back into the workplace.”

The comments came as President Obama and congressional Democrats are amplifying their pressure on Boehner to extend the benefits to the long-term unemployed who have exhausted their state help.

An estimated 1.3 million unemployed workers lost those benefits on Dec. 28, after GOP leaders rejected the Democrats' efforts to extend the help as part of a bipartisan budget deal. 

The debate will intensify next week, with Senate Democrats planning a vote on a three-month renewal. 

Sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the proposal would not offset the estimated $6.4 billion in costs, setting the stage for a potential showdown with Boehner and the Republicans if the bill is sent to the House. 

Rhode Island and Nevada have the highest unemployment rates in the country, at 9 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It remains unclear if Boehner and the Republicans will consider the issue. 

A memo released by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) Friday outlining the GOP's legislative agenda for January does not mention unemployment insurance. 

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Senate passage of a bill could put Boehner under more pressure to bring up the measure, but he cast doubt on its chances. Van Hollen noted that GOP leaders last month rejected his proposal, sponsored with Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), to extend UI benefits by three months and offset the costs by reducing farm subsidies.

“The Speaker refused to allow a vote at that time,” Van Hollen told MSNBC Friday. “So our hope is that a push from the Senate will get things moving in the House, but the jury is still out.”

Meanwhile, many conservatives on and off Capitol Hill have argued that the improving job market is indication that the emergency benefits are no longer needed. 

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a member of the Ways and Means panel, warned this week that the federal UI benefits have “stifled new job creation” by discouraging unemployed people from seeking work.

“There remains a safety net for those who have fallen on hard times," he told The Seattle Times. 

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported last month that, while the emergency UI program would cost $25.7 billion for another year, it would create 200,000 jobs and add 0.2 percent to gross domestic product. 

Advocates for a renewal – including the White House and most congressional Democrats – are quick to argue that 37 percent of all the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months and that economic circumstances warrant a continuation of the program. 

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said Friday that an extended level of benefits provided under normal economic conditions would create some measurable disincentive. But any negative effects of the extensions since the program started in 2008 “are very small relative to the positive effects on the labor market.”

In fact, Reich said, the “lack of benefits is making things worse,” and the failure to extend them “radiates out to the rest of the economy.”

In addition, supporters say the emergency nature of the benefits – combined with the bump to the economy resulting from beneficiaries spending their UI checks – eliminates the need to pay for the costs up front. 

“These programs don’t get in the way of people looking for work — they assist people looking for work,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told reporters Friday on a press call.

Obama is scheduled to address the topic from the White House on Tuesday. He will be joined by unemployed workers who lost their UI benefits last week.

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