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Unemployment Extension Benefits Still Stuck, Won’t Be Retroactive

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Heller is still trying to pass an unemployment extension. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An unemployment extension remains dead in the water in Congress, despite a new offer to ditch retroactive benefits by its primary Senate backers.

Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., unveiled a new proposal that would revive an emergency unemployment extension for five months, but it’s unclear whether it will be considered by the full Senate and doesn’t appear to impress Speaker John A. Boehner, either.

The key new wrinkle is they’ve given up on providing a retroactive check for five months of benefits to the long-term unemployed. They would only get a prospective weekly unemployment benefits check if Congress acts.

That change alone did not appear to be enough for Boehner, although the speaker has been concerned that implementing retroactive benefits would be unworkable.

“The speaker laid out the criteria before Christmas: We will take a look at any plan that is fiscally-responsible, and does something to help create private-sector jobs,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. Republicans have in the past pointed to a pileup of House bills in the Senate as examples of items they would consider attaching to an unemployment extension.

A bipartisan worker training bill, once seen as a promising area for adding an unemployment extension, is set to pass the Senate this week without unemployment benefits attached.

Reed and Heller said at a news conference that they want to be prepared in case there is an opportunity to act this summer, but they don’t have any commitments for floor time.

“This is a very crowded agenda for the rest of the year,” Reed said. But he stressed, “We are not giving up. We are going to use the same all-out full court press all the time. If there is an opening and we can bring the bill to the floor and we’ve got the votes we are going to urge the leader to do that.”

“What I was hoping would be a sprint has become a marathon,” Heller said of their effort to pass an unemployment extension.

The bill is similar to the measure that passed the Senate in April, except it would not be retroactive to December when unemployment benefits were first cut off. Instead the legislation would provide benefits for the long-term unemployed for five months starting from the date of enactment.

Similar to the retroactive proposal, the cost of the bill, a little less than $10 billion, would be fully offset using a combination of revenue raisers that includes extending “pension smoothing” provisions and extending customs user fees through 2024.

Another way to spur action in the Senate would be if the House acts on a version of the bill.

“My sense is if we saw real interest on the House side, we would respond,” Reed said.

Heller said that Senate Republicans would also be “more eager” to vote for unemployment insurance again if they saw action on the House side.

But there has been no sign of action in the House.

Heller said the message he’d received from conversations with Majority-Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a close friend from their days in the House together, was that the House wanted jobs measures added before they would consider unemployment benefits.

Heller also reiterated his request that Obama get more engaged, which Heller said he has told the president in conversations on the unemployment extension issue.

“If we are going to make progress … he needs to be more engaged and I’ll continue to say that,” Heller said. “He needs to pick up the phone and call the speaker and say, ‘Hey, how are we going to get this done.’”

Asked what case they make to those who say that an extension isn’t necessary since the unemployment rate has been coming down, both said that the long-term unemployed continue to struggle.

“We are seeing the overall unemployment numbers come down, but long-term unemployment is stuck pretty much where it’s been for the last year,” Reed said.

“I’m concerned going into the summer months,” Heller said, adding that distances are greater in the West and that rising gasoline prices would take a toll on the long-term unemployed.


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