Senate reaches bipartisan deal to extend unemployment benefits

Senate negotiators struck a bipartisan deal Thursday that would renew federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, allowing for retroactive payments to go to more than 2 million Americans whose benefits expired in late December.

Ten senators, evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, announced the pact and set up a timeline in which the legislation could pass the Senate in late March.

Its outcome in the House remains up in the air, however. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has opposed previous Senate plans as insufficient in providing offsetting cuts, did not offer a statement on the new proposal.

With 55 members of the Democratic caucus supporting an extension of unemployment benefits, the five Republican supporters of the legislation provide just enough votes to clear the 60-vote hurdle needed to pass the legislation.

“It has now been 75 days since UI expired, and it needs to be renewed. We’re not at the finish line yet, but this is a bipartisan breakthrough,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the lead sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement.

Who are the long-term unemployed?

“I’m pleased that we’ve reached an agreement that will get a sufficient number of Republican votes,” lead Republican negotiator Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) told reporters.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) signaled that the legislation would create a five-month extension of the federal benefits plan for the jobless, backdating the extension to late December, when the program expired. It will run through the end of May, if it passes the House and is signed into law.

The bill would effectively restart a key aid program for long-term unemployed workers whose jobless benefits went beyond state limits, which are about 26 weeks with some variation for each state.

The roughly $10 billion cost of the renewed federal jobless benefits would be offset by extending fees on goods coming through U.S. Customs and an alteration to the way corporations contribute to pensions, the senators announced.

In addition, the legislation will include two changes to the unemployment program, one of which will require more job training for long-term jobless workers in order to continue receiving insurance benefits. Also, the legislation includes a provision that eliminates state or federal unemployment benefits for laid-off workers whose gross income the previous year topped $1 million — which, according to federal estimates, represented 0.03 percent of all recipients.

Some Republicans involved in the discussions felt that the additional reforms to the unemployment program were insufficient, involving something akin to a promise of more changes to the unemployment program down the line.

“We’ve heard too many promises from this administration to buy in to that,” said Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), who has been involved in the talks but declined to co-sponsor the new deal.

Thursday’s announcement capped 21 / 2 months of talks in the Senate that began in earnest in early January after the law for the federal emergency unemployment program expired. Those extra benefits began late in the George W. Bush administration, as the Great Recession began, and have continued throughout the Obama administration.

For years, those extra federal jobless benefits won congressional approval without any offsetting spending cuts, but by late last year Republicans said that the unemployment program should no longer be considered “emergency” spending and should instead be brought into the normal portion of the budget.

That set off a long debate and weeks of closed-door negotiations, led by Reed and Heller, who represent the two states with the worst unemployment rates in the nation.

The issue of handling long-term jobless workers has become a key fault line in the national economy. Experts are struggling to find ways to get unemployed workers back into the economy, given that many of those who have lost their jobs come from industries that are disappearing from the United States.

Additionally, with Congress otherwise gridlocked on how to boost the economy, unemployment insurance payments represented one of the only forms of stimulus that the federal government is providing as job creation remains stagnant.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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