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The Issue: Extended unemployment benefits -- when will Congress act?

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International   |   Jan. 12, 2014 at 4:30 AM   |   Comments

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The surprising Christmas agreement that produced the first federal budget resolution in years may have lulled the casual observer into thinking Washington pols were ready to shut up and play nice.

So much for wishful thinking.

Just as a deep freeze gripped much of the nation so, too, did it chill the idea of bipartisan cooperation on restoring extended unemployment benefits for 1.4 million American workers -- and 4 million more on the cusp of losing those benefits -- who have been searching for work in vain, some for years.

True, the Senate voted 60-37 (including six Republicans) to end debate on the issue Tuesday and advance a bipartisan measure sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., that renews benefits for three months retroactively to Dec. 28 to give Congress time to come with a better plan.

But immediately after the vote Republicans were back on the attack, with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaling his rejection by saying a more effective economic stimulus would be to exempt taxpayers from the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, which requires Americans to purchase health insurance or face a fine, approve the Keystone pipeline and eliminate red tape on construction of coal-fired power plants.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of using extended unemployment benefits as a campaign issue.

"In other words, instead of working on reforms that would actually help people overcome the challenges so many of them face in this economy, Democrats plan to exploit these folks for political gain," McConnell said on the Senate floor. He said the administration has done a real "disservice" to people struggling with the economy and called extended jobless benefits a "Band-Aid." He also slammed healthcare reform, a favorite Republican boogeyman these days.

President Obama said the benefits issue should not be political fodder.

"That's why, in the past, both parties have repeatedly put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers with no strings attached," Obama said. "It's been done regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in the White House. It's been done regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans controlled Congress. And, by the way, it's been done multiple times when the unemployment rate was significantly lower than it is today. ...

"Letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong. Congress should make things right."

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew echoed his boss.

"These benefits are central to that effort by allowing responsible jobseekers to pay for basic necessities like housing and food," Lew said in a news release. "That purchasing power, though, is not just critical for those looking for work and their families. It is also important to local businesses and our economy overall."

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, expressed concern that some members members of Congress "will attempt to convert the upcoming discussion about renewing this crucial lifeline of support for the long-term unemployed into a rout on the basic unemployment insurance program or attempt to force draconian cuts in other safety net programs to pay for EUC [Emergency Unemployment Compensation] renewal."

Owens said: "We completely support strengthening re-employment programs for the unemployed, and recognize that the long-term unemployed, in particular, need and would benefit from extra assistance in the form of job-placement services, and where needed and appropriately funded and targeted, retraining. We hope that Congress will find the will and the way to make that happen. But conditioning assistance for the long-term unemployed on requirements that are punitive or counter-productive would be misguided and mean-spirited."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he'd consider funding the extended benefits for a year with budget cuts elsewhere, including Medicare and a crackdown on those who collect both extended benefits and Social Security.

And there's the rub. Democrats have proposed an $18 billion reduction and want the "pay-for" to kick in a decade down the road. Republicans want the cuts a lot sooner.

Reid said the Democrats' proposal was "entirely paid for" and contained "structural changes" Republicans demanded.

"We've done everything the Republicans wanted," Reid said in remarks quoted by the Washington Post. "Now is the time to fish or cut bait."

Republicans have yet to define exactly what they want.

The action came ahead of Friday's jobless report, which put December unemployment at 6.7 percent, down 0.3 of a point from November, largely because 490,000 job-seekers gave up.

About 37.7 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for at least 27 weeks -- the long-term unemployed -- and number 3.9 million individuals.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is open to suggestions on the extended benefits question but families should not be deprived of funds to "put food on the table ... or pay their heating bills" while Congress bickers.

"The budget deal was a good deal and it was an important deal. It was a modest deal, but it was a significant -- far more than the size of the deal was the symbolism after what we've been through of Congress actually coming together in a bipartisan way to pass a budget," Carney told White House reporters Thursday. "And that made it important.

"But that doesn't excuse Congress from the need to act, as it has in the past, under Republican presidents and Republican Congresses, as well as Democratic presidents and Congresses, to extend unemployment insurance."

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