Senate strikes deal on jobless aid

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The Senate reached a bipartisan deal on Thursday that would renew federal unemployment benefits for five months. 

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The plan put together by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would provide retroactive benefits to people who lost federal help after the program expired on Dec. 28.

“There are a lot of good people looking for work and I am pleased we’re finally able to reach a strong, bipartisan consensus to get them some help,” Reed said. 

The bill is cosponsored by a broad swath of lawmakers from both parties, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

The bill will likely see floor action later this month, after the Senate returns from a one-week recess. Reed and Heller expressed confidence that they can garner enough votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and pass the measure.

The deal combines ideas from Republican and Democratic proposals.

It would use several offsets to pay for the $10 billion cost of extending the benefits, including pension smoothing provisions from the 2012 highway bill, which were set to phase out this year, and extending customs user fees through 2024.

The bill also includes an additional offset allowing single-employer pension plans to prepay their flat rate premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

The measure would also prevent millionaires and billionaires from receiving the federal benefits.

The proposal also includes language pushed by Collins to strengthen reemployment and eligibility assessment (REA) and re-employment services (RES) programs, which provide help to unemployed workers when they enter their 27th week of benefits. 

So far this year, senators have tried and failed to renew the program, which was put into place in June 2008 and had been extended nearly a dozen times since then.

More than 1.3 million people lost their federal unemployment benefits in December after Congress failed to reach a deal. Democrats say the number of people losing the aid has risen to around 2 million since then.

The emergency federal program kicks in once workers who continue looking for a new job have exhausted benefits, usually after 26 weeks.

President Obama and House Democrats have been applying pressure on the Senate to hammer out an agreement. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney hailed the Senate agreement.

“This is not just the right thing to do for these Americans looking for work, it’s the right thing to do for our economy. The president urges the Senate to pass the bill and for the House to do the same so that he can sign it into law.”

Even if the bill gets through the Senate, it faces hurdles in the House. 

Still, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he would consider an unemployment bill that was fully paid for and included reforms to the program. 

Democrats had offered up a six-month proposal last week that called for using a large portion of the farm law’s savings to cover its $12 billion price tag. That option was unpopular among Republicans. 

The Senate deal also doesn’t include a Portman-led effort to end duplicate payments of Social Security disability and jobless benefits checks, which would have provided between $1 billion and $3 billion in savings. 

“I am so glad that both Democrats and Republicans have come together on a proposal that will finally give Americans certainty about their unemployment benefits,” Heller said. 

“This deal extends these important benefits for five months, pays for them, and brings buy-in from both sides of the aisle.”

Advocates pushing for a renewal have argued that another round of the program is warranted because the long-term unemployed comprise about 37 percent of all the jobless. 

The emergency program was first authorized in 2008 when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent and has been reauthorized or expanded 11 times — most recently more than a year ago as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal.

The benefits have been gradually curtailed as part of the past two extensions, so the program still only serves about one-third of the long-term unemployed.

During the height of the recession, unemployed workers could earn upward of 99 weeks of benefits.

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) called the Senate agreement “a major step forward for millions of job-seeking Americans.”

“I urge Republicans in the House to follow this bipartisan path to assist the unemployed,” he said. 

“The need is urgent, as is our responsibility to act.”

— This story was last updated at 7:28 p.m.