Competing bills threaten UI renewal

Dueling bills to renew a federal unemployment benefits program could trip up efforts to get legislation passed in the Senate. 

Both Democrats and Republicans offered up fresh proposals this week that would renew emergency unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, injecting another batch of uncertainty into the debate. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Democrats’ six-month proposal would use a large portion of the farm law’s savings to cover the $12 billion price tag, an unpopular option among Republicans. 

The GOP plan would combine several offsets to pay for a $10-billion, five-month measure that includes some program reforms.  

Both bills would extend benefits retroactively to Dec. 28, when long-term unemployment insurance expired.

Senators have tried and failed this year to renew the program, put into place in June 2008 and extended nearly a dozen times since then.

Still, aides say the two parties are continuing to discuss a way forward to bridge their differences, which could pave the way for a long-awaited bipartisan deal. 

“This is vital to millions of Americans and would give the economy a boost,” a Senate Democratic aide told The Hill.  

“That is why we've never stopped talking and trying to find a bipartisan solution.”

 Still, as the debate rambles on, both sides are blaming the other for lacking the gumption to produce a bill that is acceptable enough to pass. 

“If the Senate does not and will not allow this bill to come up for a vote — instead pushing a party-line measure paid for by budget gimmicks — it should be clear that they are more interested in cable TV talking points than helping Americans in need,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a bill sponsor. 

A vote could come as early as next week but the Senate is running behind schedule because of the most recent snowstorm, so the timing remains unclear. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that he is hopeful that one more Republican will step forward to break a filibuster. 

“I have to pull out all the stops to try to pick up another Republican vote,” he said.

President Obama, who has been urging Congress to pass an extension, called again for a renewal of the benefits in his fiscal 2015 budget, which was released on Tuesday. 

A group of Senate Republicans — Murkowski, along with Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.), Susan Collins (Maine), Rob Portman (Ohio), Dan Coats (Ind.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — introduced legislation Thursday night.

Several of the senators have supported moving forward on debate on the issue in the past but a bipartisan plan has yet to emerge. 

Notably, Heller has worked consistently with Democratic Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) on a solution. 

He called the GOP proposal “responsible,” and one that could conceivably attract enough support because it includes a combination of Republican and Democratic ideas. 

“I will keep talking to my Republican and Democratic colleagues so that these benefits are extended for those who desperately need them,” Heller said.

But a Senate aide said that “there is some good movement, but some of these policy provisions are real nonstarters.”

The aide didn’t specify what was unpalatable to Democrats, but program advocates say reforms that would require unemployed workers to accept job offers regardless of the circumstances or lose their benefits are unacceptable. 

But Republicans are standing behind their plan.  

“Our proposal is fully paid for and will allow us to begin reforming a broken program that’s failing to connect Americans with jobs,” Portman said in a statement.

“Since the beginning of the debate, I’ve stood ready to work in a bipartisan manner for a solution for the long-term unemployed,” he said.

The GOP bill would use several offsets to pay for the cost — pension smoothing provisions from the 2012 highway bill, extending customs user fees through 2024 and ending duplicate payments of Social Security disability and jobless benefits checks. 

Earlier in the debate, Republicans expressed concern about the pension offset, which was previously offered up by Democrats. 

The bill also would require program applicants to undergo an assessment by a state or federal agency to determine why they remain unemployed and to identify steps they should take to improve job prospects, such as enrolling in a job training program.

The bill also would ensure that millionaires can’t draw benefits.