Dems plan another push on unemployment benefits

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

With Obama set to discuss the plight of the long term unemployed in a high profile setting tonight, Republicans may soon be challenged to vote yet again on extending the unemployment benefits program after well over one million Americans got cut off after Christmas – and this time, the extension will be paid for.

Senate Democrats are eying a new proposal for a three month extension of unemployment insurance, to be paid for by a provision that Republicans previously supported, a Democratic aide tells me. Talks have started between Dem leaders and Republicans, the aide adds, but I could not determine which Republicans were in discussions or how many of them there are.

The aide says Dems are eying a proposal to pay for the extra three months of UI by extending “pension smoothing” provisions in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, a transportation funding bill that comfortably passed both houses in 2012 and raised revenues through pension revisions.

It’s unclear how advanced discussions are, but the Dem aide says the general goal is to offer a pay-for that Republicans have previously supported. “Will they take yes for an answer or will they try to hide behind procedural arguments because they just don’t want to allow any progress to help job seekers?” the aide asks.

Beyond this, the broader goal is to pass the three month extension to create space for negotiations over a longer extension, along the lines of the one Dems sought to extend the UI benefits program into November of 2014. That one was paid for through a continuation of sequester cuts outside the 10-year window, and no Republicans (aside from Senator Dean Heller) supported it, with some claiming procedural objections.

All this seems hopeless, but it comes as the SOTU speech will renew attention on the long term unemployed. One of Michelle Obama’s guests tonight is an Illinois mother of two whose unemployment benefits have expired. Meanwhile, 10 Democrats, led by Rep. Sander Levin, are also expected to host unemployed Americans tonight.

Obama will announce that he has secured a pledge from some of the nation’s largest employers not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed in hiring decisions. This is a creative response to a severe problem: Being out of work for a long time takes a serious toll on people and becomes a serious impediment to finding work again. That’s also an argument for extending their UI lifeline, because contra claims that a swift kick in the butt will make them more likely to find work, there are far more unemployed people than there are jobs, and those whose benefits expire risk dropping out of the labor force.

The solution Obama will roll out tonight is an example of the sort of executive action he is resorting to in the face of implacable Republican opposition. Generally, this new unilateral approach is getting pilloried by Republicans who are claiming it will make bipartisan compromise harder.

And so, if there is another vote on another effort to extend unemployment benefits — which Republicans will likely oppose, even if it is paid for — it will illustrate with still more clarity why this unilateral approach may be the only recourse left.

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UPDATE: The three-month extension would make payments retroactive to late December, the source tells me.

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