Senate approves extension in jobless aid, but House forecast is cloudy

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 7, 2014 

— The Senate on Monday agreed to extend the federal unemployment insurance program to about 2.8 million people nationwide who have lost jobs, exhausted their state benefits and still have not found new work.

The bill passed 59-38, but it’s future remains uncertain. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has criticized the bill and party leaders have not indicated whether they will allow a vote.

If the benefits extension becomes law, the measure would make long-term unemployed people in North Carolina eligible once again for the federal program. The state lost eligibility when the Republican-led legislature cut state benefits last summer. About 170,000 North Carolinians lost their federal jobless benefits in the second half of last year as a result.

Under federal law, states must maintain their benefit amounts to qualify for the federal benefits.

North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who faces a challenging re-election this year, got a waiver added to the bill that would restore the state to the program even though the state benefits were reduced.

“North Carolina is one step closer to regaining eligibility for federal unemployment benefits that would help families who continue to struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table, " Hagan said after voting for the measure. "Now that the Senate has approved bipartisan legislation that includes my provision to right the wrong created by the General Assembly, I call on the House to take action and provide these North Carolinians with access to a crucial lifeline as they continue to seek work.”

Still, North Carolina would face another hurdle even if the extension bill becomes law. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory would have to decide whether to extend the federal benefits of about $300 per week for unemployed workers who exhausted their state benefits. His spokesman, Ryan Tronovitch, said on Monday that McCrory would have nothing to say unless the measure also passed the House.

Under the bill, anyone in North Carolina who was eligible for federal benefits in July when the state dropped out of the program, and still didn’t have a job would be eligible to receive the benefits again.

Democrats see the jobless benefits issue as a help in the the mid-terms elections, particularly in the Senate where control of the chamber could hang in the balance. The more Republicans resist, the more Democrats intend to portray them as insensitive to the needs of unemployed Americans who have not benefited from the end of the recession.

Republicans often counter that as long as people can collect benefits, they’ll rely on government money and not have incentive to look for work. And, Republicans often argue, the best way to ease unemployment is to provide other incentives for job creation.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said on Monday that Boehner for months has said that House Republicans would consider extending emergency unemployment insurance if it included provisions that would create more private-sector jobs.

“I have always said that I’m a supporter of a strong social safety net,” said George Holding, R-N.C. “Any plan to extend long term unemployment benefits needs to be fiscally responsible and address the core issue the lack of private-sector job creation.”

Hagan’s campaign blamed her leading Republican rival, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, for guiding through the bill that reduced state benefits and made North Carolina the only state not eligible for the federal benefits.

Tillis earlier complained that Hagan was out to score political points by waiting until December to propose a waiver. Hagan has responded by saying that it was not possible to push for a waiver until after the state legislature passed its own unemployment law. Senate Democrats proposed the legislation shortly after the latest federal unemployment insurance program expired on Dec. 28. The bill calls for making benefits retroactive.

“Thom Tillis should take responsibility for the mess he made in Raleigh last year, but instead he continues to play political games with long-term unemployed North Carolinians working hard to get back on their feet,” said Sadie Weiner, Hagan’s campaign spokeswoman. “While Kay put North Carolina first to include a fix for our state that will help middle class families make ends meet, Tillis spent the last year using the unemployed as a political football just to oppose the same fix he claimed to want.”

Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw could not be reached for comment.

The Senate bill makes the extension fully paid for with a combination of offsets, including “pension smoothing,” an accounting maneuver that allows companies to pay less into their pensions funds temporarily, which raises their taxable income.

“We have bent over backwards to pass a strong bipartisan unemployment insurance bill that incorporates Republican ideas,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. “If our bill was put up for a vote in the House, there is no question it would pass. Contrary to right-wing talking points, many of the people who would benefit this bill are out of work through no fault of their own and have been knocking on doors and going online looking for a job for months or even years.”

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said on Monday that Boehner for months has said that House Republicans would consider extending emergency unemployment insurance if it included provisions that would create more private-sector jobs.

“I have always said that I’m a supporter of a strong social safety net,” said George Holding, R-N.C. “Any plan to extend long term unemployment benefits needs to be fiscally responsible and address the core issue the lack of private-sector job creation.”

There is some sentiment to make the five-month extension start now and continue through early next fall, instead of being retroactive. Last Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., would not rule that out when asked about it on the House floor by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Doing so would resolve one issue Republicans often mention: They have maintained retroactivity would be an administrative nightmare. It also would push any talk of another extension into the general election season.

Both parties regard the issue as important for firing up their bases, which can be important in midterm elections where turnout can be crucial.

An extension “doesn’t create any jobs,” Cantor said. “We want to provide a better environment for businesses to hire folks. We want to help those folks who are chronically unemployed access the skills necessary to fill the job openings today.”

Everyone wants to get people back to work, countered Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. But sometimes people need help, he said.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof. Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid.

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