GOP seeks to cut unemployment benefits

GOP leaders hope to build momentum for an end-of-year tax package with sweeping reforms to federal unemployment benefits.

The Republican proposal is expected to reduce the total number of weeks unemployed workers are eligible for aid by as much as 40 weeks and tighten rules for eligibility.

Such a reduction would significantly reduce the cost of extending federal unemployment benefits, making it easier to secure GOP support for a measure that will also include an extension of a payroll tax cut many conservative Republicans dislike.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) told The Hill on Thursday that GOP leaders were still working out the details of their proposal.

“We're still working with members to find a policy that everyone can agree on,” he said.

But Camp indicated Republicans believe they will find political support for reducing the number of weeks workers are eligible for federal benefits.

“Most Americans feel that unemployment insurance should be somewhere between 26 and 99 weeks, and we're looking at policies that will end up with an employment plan somewhere in that range.”

Reducing the number of weeks workers can get benefits doesn’t sit well with House Democrats, however, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she can't support a cut that large next year.

“That would be problematic in our caucus,” she told reporters on Thursday.

Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) was more pointed, saying House Republicans have “chosen a path of confrontation instead of searching for common ground.”

“They are following a path of blaming victims of the economic downturn,” he said. “I can only hope that when Republicans go home this weekend they will talk with unemployed Americans and begin to understand the exceptionally challenging circumstances they face.”

Unemployed workers are now eligible for a maximum 99 weeks of federal and state benefits. The length of the federal benefits varies based on the unemployment rate of states, but can be a maximum of 73 weeks in addition to the maximum 26 weeks granted by some states.

Some Democrats want to increase the total number of weeks of benefits, not reduce it.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus want to add an additional 14 weeks of benefits beyond the 99 weeks now offered for more than 2 million workers.

She told The Hill that any cuts to benefit programs would be “devastating,” given the nation’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate, a figure that doesn’t include millions of people who have given up the search for a new job.

While Republicans have not offered specific language, talk in the halls on Thursday was that their proposal would gradually reduce the number of weeks for eligibility, first to 79 weeks and then to 59 weeks, possibly by next summer.

States would get to keep some federal unemployment funds for programs like job training, lawmakers said.

Obama has proposed some reforms to unemployment programs that could reduce their cost.

He would require states to design more rigorous re-employment services for the long-term unemployed and to conduct assessments to review the longest-term claimants to assess their eligibility and help them develop a work-search plan. 

Obama also has backed an expansion of “work-sharing” to encourage arrangements using unemployment benefits that keep employees on the job at reduced hours, rather than laying them off.

In addition, he also has suggested that states will be able to put in place reforms that build off programs like Georgia Works, which permits long-term unemployed workers to continue receiving benefits while they take temporary, voluntary work or pursue work-based training.

The administration also has pointed out that the costs of extending the federal benefits will fall as state unemployment rates drop.

If Congress does not approve the extension of unemployment benefits, more than 1 million will lose benefits in January. A total of 6 million people would see their benefits run out over the course of the year.