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Senators Slog While Unemployed Suffer

Mitch-mcconnell.jpg
Mitch-mcconnell.jpg

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

A protracted and very partisan Senate skirmish has left hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans without unemployment benefits — an impasse that Democrats leaders are hoping to break this week.

They have their work cut out.

Congress.jpg
Congress.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Almost five weeks after the House passed legislation to extend insurance benefits to the growing rolls of the long-term unemployed, upper-chamber leaders continue to haggle over Republican amendments. Not only do GOP leaders want to alter the way the bill is funded, but they’re insisting that a handful of politically charged amendments also get consideration, including provisions to de-fund ACORN and keep illegal immigrants out of the workplace. Since the start of the deadlock, more than 125,000 Americans have lost their unemployment insurance benefits.

The stalemate has frustrated Democratic leaders, who twice this month have attempted to pass the extension, only to be rebuffed by Republicans on the Senate floor. It’s also left a growing number of jobless Americans and their advocates indignant that lawmakers would make political hay out of their misfortunes in the middle of the worst employment crisis in a generation.

“Unemployed workers across the country are devastated and dismayed by the failure of the U.S. Senate to extend their lifeline,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “It’s shameful and callous.”

The deadlock has been something of a surprise. When the House brought up an unemployment insurance extension bill last month — a proposal granting an additional 13 months of benefits to high-unemployment states — it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The vote was 331 to 83.

Senate Democrats are pushing a more generous bill, extending benefits by 14 weeks nationwide, with an additional six weeks for those in states where unemployment rates have topped 8.5 percent. The bill applies only to the future, meaning those whose benefits expired before passage would not be eligible for backpay. The Senate is scheduled to vote Tuesday afternoon on a procedural move to begin consideration of the bill.

Standing in their way, however, are GOP leaders who want to attach a series of controversial — some say unrelated — amendments. Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), for example, are pushing separate provisions to ensure that ACORN doesn’t receive federal funds. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have offered amendments related to the Wall Street bailout. And Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wants to make permanent the controversial E-Verify program, which screens newly hired workers in order to weed out illegal immigrants.

The offices of Corker, Thune, Vitter and Johanns did not respond to requests for comment. A Sessions aide said Friday that the E-Verify amendment is definitely still a part of the discussion.

Whether those provisions have any place beside the underlying bill depends on which side you ask.

An aide for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the amendments are intended to delay the process, just as Republicans tried to do earlier in the year when they offered similar provisions alongside, for example, the economic stimulus bill. “It’s kind of from the same playbook,” the aide said. “If they were seriously trying to do this, they wouldn’t be trying to add unrelated amendments.”

Yet GOP leaders dispute that claim, arguing that the primary sticking point is the proposed funding mechanism, not the underlying push to extend benefits.

To pay for their $2.4 billion legislation, Democrats are proposing to extend a small portion of the federal unemployment tax that employers pay on behalf of workers. That tax — currently eight-tenths of 1 percent of the first $7,000 employers pay for each worker — is slated to drop to six-tenths of 1 percent at the end of the year. The Democrats’ proposal would keep the current rate in place through June of 2011, effectively costing employers $14 per employee annually — or $21 per worker over the life of the bill.

An aide for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the additional tax would prevent small businesses from hiring new workers, effectively undermining the purpose of the bill at the expense of the unemployed folks it’s designed to help. The Republicans want to fund the extension using unspent stimulus money instead.

Complicating the picture for Democrats, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) has offered an amendment to extend the popular $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers through next June, while also expanding eligibility to include folks with higher incomes. Additionally, the Isakson wants to apply the credit to all homebuyers, not just first-timers.

Faced with record budget deficits, the Obama administration has been wary of extending the tax credit. As a result, Democrats have offered a counter-offer to Isakson: a four-month extension of the $8,000 credit, followed by incremental decreases — $2,000 a pop — for each of the three subsequent trimesters. Like the existing benefit, only first-time homebuyers would qualify.

The Reid aide said Friday that no agreement has been reached.

The delay has consequences. Each day the Senate idles, another 7,000 Americans lose their unemployment insurance benefits, according to figures released by the National Employment Law Project this month. By year’s end, the group estimates, roughly 1.3 million people will have exhausted their benefits unless Congress steps in.

In light of the congressional inaction, some states have taken it upon themselves to extend unemployment insurance using emergency state funds. Oregon, for example, tapped into a surplus earlier this month in announcing a 13-week extension. The funds are expected to benefit 6,000 state residents.

Faced with budget crises of their own, however, most states don’t have the luxury of extending these benefits. It’s up to Washington, advocates say, to fill in the gap.

“It’s time for the Senate to do right by the families hardest hit by the recession,” Owens said. “The Senate needs to do whatever it takes, working weekends included, to make this happen.”

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