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A New Bill for 99ers, But Is It Too Late?

December 19, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

With very few days left in the 111th session of Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9] and Rep. Bobby Scott [D, VA-3], both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have introduced new legislation to provide relief to unemployed workers who have exhausted all available insurance benefits and are still unemployed (i.e. the “99ers”). The bill, H.R. 6556, would not add a fifth tier of federal benefits. Instead, it would extend the length of the first tier of benefits from 20 weeks to 34 weeks and allow 99ers to collect the additional 14 weeks retroactively.

The introduction of this bill is not necessarily a sign of progress for getting relief for 99ers from Congress. Any member of Congress can introduce any bill they want on any topic. They don’t need approval from party leadership. They simply draft a bill, drop it in a box, and it’s considered pending before Congress. The real work is advocacy. Members who are serious about their bills lobby their colleagues to become co-sponsors, push their bills in committee hearings and floor speeches, and support the work of grassroots groups that are fighting for the same cause.

It’s unclear if Reps. Lee and Scott are serious about getting this passed, but even if they are, the bill faces enormous odds.

Right now, it appears that the Congress is planning to adjourn the session on Wednesday. It’s possible for them to come back after Christmas, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] has said that he is willing to stay in session until Jan. 5th if necessary, but, unless they fail to resolve any items this week that they consider “must-pass,” it’s unlikely.

Normally, bills are approved by committees before they get a vote on the floor. Given the time constraints, that’s clearly not possible with this bill. The only way for this to move in the legislative process at this point would be for the House Rules Committee to decide it is a privileged matter that should be put on the House calendar directly without prior committee approval. The Rules Committee is closely connected to the House leadership and generally considered an extension of the Speaker of the House, so this is really in the hands of Rep. Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8]. To date, Pelosi has never specifically advocated for or pushed legislation to help people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Ninety percent of bills die in the committees they were referred to upon introduction, and that’s the most likely outcome for this bill. But let’s imagine for a second what’s likely to happen if somehow that’s not the case.

If the bill gets to the House floor, it’s possible that it could be supported by a majority and passed. The House hasn’t been the chamber delaying unemployment benefits extensions these pays few years, it’s always been the Senate. Republicans in the Senate have consistently filibustered extensions of the filing deadline for the existing 99 weeks of unemployment benefits because they think they should be offset with corresponding spending cuts. According to the information posted by Rep. Scott, this bill does not include an offset. There’s no reason to think the Republicans’ position would be any different with this bill. In fact, it could be worse. Some Republicans have subscribed to the theory that unemployment benefits discourage people from looking for new jobs, so their opposition to adding additional weeks might be stronger than it is for just extending the filing deadline for the current level of weeks. Senate Democrats would need at least two Republicans to vote with them to break a filibuster on this bill. Without an offset, there’s no way that would happen.

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