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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that in a conversation with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, he promised her he would send staff to the Hill to discuss with her potential changes to the extended unemployment insurance program.

Collins on Tuesday was one of six Republicans to vote to open debate on a three-month patch of the program. On Wednesday, she was the only GOP senator at a news conference to step forward in response to a question from CQ Roll Call to state her belief that jobless benefits should exist in the long term — on the condition that the program be changed to include support and training for America’s chronically unemployed. Though much of the focus on Capitol Hill has been on how to approve an emergency extension of the extended unemployment insurance, which lapsed last month for 1.3 million Americans, larger questions loom: Can the system be changed to attract bipartisan support again and are Republicans, on principle, willing to support such a program?

The Maine moderate believes she has an answer.

“I, for one, believe that the long-term unemployment [compensation] program needs to be overhauled so that it is focused on giving people the training, the supports that they need to get back to work. That may mean training them for a job in a field that is completely different from the field where they have traditionally worked,” Collins said. “Considering they have been unemployed for more than a year, than most likely the job that she or he once held is not going to come back. … I think we do a real disservice if we don’t link the continued receipt of benefits after a year to new jobs for them.

“I have talked with the president as recently as yesterday morning about that idea,” Collins continued, as part of a lengthy explanation of her position. “He was very receptive and is in fact sending staffers up to talk to me about developing some sort of program where we would link unemployment benefits with a requirement for job training.”

Collins said she would encourage leaders to bring the bipartisan Workforce Investment Act, approved out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July, to the floor and that it could be a natural vehicle for the kind of unemployment benefits changes she’s seeking.

Of course, it’s still quite unclear whether Congress will be able to approve the short-term extension of the expired UI benefits, let alone pass long-term changes to the system. Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire at this same news conference reiterated that they will not vote for cloture on the bill unless it’s fully paid for. And none of the proposed offsets from the GOP appear designed to gain traction with Democrats.

Ayotte said she wasn’t focused on what happens after the pending patch gets approved, responding to the same question by saying, “Ultimately what I’d like to see us do is work on concrete policies that create a better environment for private sector job creation.”

When CQ Roll Call followed up by asking whether that meant she didn’t believe in extended unemployment benefits on principle, Ayotte said, “I think right now, before us, we have a three-month extension, which I’ve been very clear, if we find a responsible pay-for, I am willing to support.”

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