Reid: Let’s not just extend unemployment insurance. Let’s expand it.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

It’s a bit surprising this didn’t get more attention. But the other day, Harry Reid told a Nevada newspaper that he’d like to expand the unemployment insurance program, not just extend it.

This would go significantly farther than the current proposal in the Senate to extend unemployment insurance by a mere three months:

The three-month unemployment insurance extension the Senate plans to vote on next week won’t make any changes to the current eligibility structure for federally backed emergency benefits.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is thinking about pushing to change how eligibility for emergency unemployment benefits is determined, making it easier for the long-term unemployed to access benefits as the economy improves.

Reid told the Las Vegas Sun during an interview Monday that he’d like to lower the per-tier unemployment rate threshold that determines when jobless workers in hardest-hit states can claim the maximum weeks of benefits. “Hopefully, we can bring that number down,” Reid said during a telephone interview.

The short version of this is that under the current proposal to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, the overall program would extended three months. But that doesn’t mean all people on unemployment insurance get three months more; their duration is dictated by how much they’ve already received, and how long the duration of those in their tier are supposed to last. Each tier — there are four of them — is dictated by the unemployment rate in their states.

What Reid is proposing is to change the structure of the program, so that those in states with a high unemployment rate – but one that’s not high enough to qualify for the maximum of 73 weeks, the top tier – would get the maximum length. In other words, the duration of benefits would last longer for more people.

Reid told the Las Vegas Sun that he won’t push for this restructuring of the program until the three month extension is secured (which may or may not happen). And obviously, this is going to be a huge lift, given that even the temporary extension’s passage is in doubt.

But the broader point is that this is another reminder of just how far to the right the debate on these matters has drifted.

A mere three month extension of unemployment benefits is thought to be politically extremely difficult, even though it may be unprecedented for Congress to let UI lapse with the long term unemployment rate this high. But if anything, as Reid suggests, given current economic conditions, we should be thinking about doing significantly more than that — expanding the program. Yet that seems entirely out of the question.

The boundaries of acceptable discourse have been shifted to the right on other issues, too, such as Social Security. Some progressives would like to see Social Security expanded to deal with what they see as a looming retirement crisis born of stagnating incomes and other trends. But as E.J. Dionne notes, “discussions about entitlements have revolved almost exclusively around the question of how much to cut them.” Dionne’s broader diagnosis:

For a long time, the American conversation has been terribly distorted because an active, uncompromising political right has not had to face a comparably influential left. As a result, our entire debate has been dragged in a conservative direction, meaning that the center has been  pulled that way, too.

As Dionne suggests, the seeming resurgence of the populist left could reorient the broader conversation.

The current battle over extending unemployment benefits revolves in part around the question of how to get Republicans to agree to it — for instance, what “pay for” Dems should propose. Yet Dems are in a position where they are calling for the absolute minimum at the outset — a three month extension — in effect conceding much of the field up front. Perhaps Reid’s suggestion of an expansion of unemployment benefits could help change that. It’ll be interesting to see whether Dems take it up.

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