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With No Republican Support, Democrats Intro Bill to Help Long-Term Unemployed Workers

February 11, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Every week, 35,000 unemployed Americans reach the end of their insurance benefits without finding new jobs and join the ranks of a growing group of recession victims known as the “99ers.” According to the Congressional Budget Office, there are at least 1.4 million 99ers right now, and with the unemployment rate expected to stay high for several years, it’s statistically certain that that number will increase dramatically in the coming months.

Given the facts of the situation, some congressional Democrats are pushing legislation to extend the unemployment insurance lifeline to help relieve the hardship these people are facing. On Wednesday, Rep. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9] reintroduced a bill in the new Congress that would add 14 weeks to the current federal unemployment insurance system and provide those benefits retroactively for people who have already exhausted all their benefits. Lee introduced her bill, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act, with 47 co-sponsors — all Democrats — and according to rumors she is already up to 60.

So far, however, no Republicans have signed on, and with the House under Republican control there is little chance of the bill passing without getting at least some Republicans on board. Whether Lee is hoping to move this through the regular committee process or as an amendment to another bill, it can not pass with Democratic support alone. The Republican position on unemployment insurance has long been that they will not supporting extensions unless the costs of the extension are offset. Lee’s bill, however, is not offset and as currently written would be financed by adding to the deficit. The Democrats argue that unemployment benefits pay for themselves in the stimulative effects they produce in a high-unemployment environment (and the evidence suggests that is true), but the Republicans have been unwilling to accept that argument.

When the Democrats controlled both chambers last session, they were able to bypass Republican opposition to extensions by declaring the costs “emergency spending” and using their raw majorities to muscle them through. But the situation with this bill, this year, is starkly different. First (obviously), the Democrats don’t have the numbers in either chamber to push through bills that the Republicans oppose. Second, this is not a simple extension of unemployment benefits like the ones the Democrats passed repeatedly last session. It’s an expansion of benefits — from 99 weeks max. to 113 weeks — which is a harder sell to Republicans who like to argue that unemployment insurance discourages people from finding jobs. Third, the Republicans have upped their offsetting requirements for this session. They won’t accept tax increases as a pay-for, even in the form of closing blatant loopholes that are exploited to provide unfair benefits. They want everything offset with spending cuts. That means Lee the Democrats would have to find another part of the budget to trim, a tall order given all the cutbacks that are already being promoted by the Republicans.

Obviously, Lee is well aware of these challenges. “Extending this emergency lifeline for unemployed workers will be challenging but just because something is difficult to do doesn’t mean you don’t try it," she told Michigan Live. “This issue is too important to millions of unemployed workers to just stand around and do nothing.” Indeed, it is too important of an issue to ignore, and it’s good that Lee is pushing on this. But, remember, introducing a bill is easy. Any member of Congress can introduce any bill they want, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more viable a proposal than before it was introduced. The vast majority of bills die in committee without ever seeing any action. The real work is building a coalition and finding a way in the legislative process to actually push things forward towards becoming law.

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