A surprising step forward for unemployment benefits

In a surprise to people on both sides, the Senate just voted to move to consideration of the bill to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program for three months, after six Republican Senators joined with Dems to invoke cloture by 60-37.

There is still a long way to go — Republican Senators will press Dems to agree to pay for the extension; there will be other procedural hurdles; and a second vote to end debate that also requires 60. And then there’s the House, where John Boehner has already issued a statement reiterating that House Republicans require a “pay for” and an additional job creation measure before they will even consider supporting the extension. So it’s very possible that in the end, there will be no extension for the 1.3 million people who lost benefits just after Christmas, and perhaps for the untold numbers of additional people set to lose benefits later this year.

But nonetheless, this is a step forward, and suggests at least some Republicans sense the politics shifting on the issue.

Republicans are clearly recasting their opposition to the extension as one that’s all about fiscal responsibility, and not about ideological opposition to extending the program grounded in various iterations of the idea, as Paul Ryan has put it, that the safety net is a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency.”

Rand Paul has already softened his opposition after claiming an extension would be a “disservice” to the long-term unemployed. And take a look at the imagery in this press release from back in October, from GOP Rep. Dave Camp, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee:

camp

The October Camp release says that we should “end” the EUC program because it has “helped keep unemployment too high for too long.” Now the emphasis from GOP leaders is more on paying for the program.

What now?

In an interview today, Dem Senator Jack Reed, who has taken a lead role on this issue, told me Dems would push for the closing of corporate tax loopholes as one way to pay for the extension.  Asked if there were any other pay-fors Dems might agree to, Reed demurred, and pointed out that at this point, the negotiations are very likely to shift to the leadership level, where Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell may well discuss whether there are any ways of paying for the extension that both sides can agree to.

Said Reed: “At least now we’ve changed the debate from some of my colleagues saying this whole program should be scrapped to a bipartisan group now saying, ’The program is valuable, the question is, what effect will it have on the deficit?’”

However, Reed admitted: “When you get into the realm of pay-fors, it’s very difficult.”

So this is still going to be very hard. As noted earlier today, we don’t know whether there are any pay-fors that Republicans can accept, other than ones that would undermine the recovery and work against the economic benefits an extension would bring.

But today mattered. The shifting rationales from Republicans, combined with the surprise passage of the procedural measure today, will likely get the national press corps to take the unemployment insurance battle far more seriously – before, it appeared that there was no chance Republicans would ever agree to an extension — which could further increase pressure on Republicans in the days ahead.

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Morning Plum: Republicans reframing fight over unemployment benefits