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Breakthrough On Jobless Benefits May Lead To Blind Alley

Republican senators Rob Portman (left), Dean Heller and Susan Collins worked with a bipartisan group to reach a deal to extend long-term jobless benefits for five months.
J. Scott Applewhite
Republican senators Rob Portman (left), Dean Heller and Susan Collins worked with a bipartisan group to reach a deal to extend long-term jobless benefits for five months.

The bipartisan agreement in the Senate over a five-month extension of federal unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless may seem like a breakthrough.

But for Sister Marge Clark, senior lobbyist for NETWORK — a national Catholic social justice lobby that welcomes the news, the fact that the agreement is seen as a progress shows just how far the political situation in Washington has deteriorated.

"Some of the politics is just the partisan gridlock," Clark, who's lobbied lawmakers' staff members on the benefits issue, told It's All Politics. "It's always been bipartisan, until now."

Her position is grounded on Catholic social commitment dating back to the 1880s that asserts that the federal government must act to help those affected negatively when the private sector doesn't produce enough jobs, she said.

According to the Congressional Research Service (see Table 1), the disputed jobless insurance program has been extended more than a dozen times since its creation in 2008, as the Great Recession has gained steam. Congress had always approved it, until last year, which caused the benefits to expire at the end of 2013.

Clark said much resistance to the extension is ideological. "I think they're some of the same people who believe if you take away benefits and you give more money to the people who have the most money already, that more jobs will be created," she says.

"There are some who also believe — as Paul Ryan attested to a couple days ago ... [that] there's a culture among some people of not believing in work. Having lived in the inner city 28 years of my life and having worked in inner-city schools another 15 years, what Paul Ryan says does not ring true at all. But I do think there is a mentality like that among some people."

In stating a conservative position, spokesman Barney Keller told It's All Politics: "The fact is that unemployment benefits increase unemployment; they provide disincentives to work. Expanding [benefits] for another five months isn't going to put people back to work, isn't going to increase economic growth. So it's just bad policy." Though he acknowledges it could be good politics, since polls generally show majorities of Americans favoring the extension.

Club for Growth opposes the federal government's role in jobless benefits on principle, arguing that such assistance is properly a state role.

But given the reality that the federal government already plays a large role in such insurance, Keller said that whether his organization decides to score the new Senate legislative agreement negatively will depend on how lawmakers decide to pay for it.

"It would depend on what the offset was. If the offset is real, and it's cutting current spending in an equal amount [to what] we're spending on the unemployment benefit," then the group might be persuaded to withhold a negative rating, he said.

"But in the past, Congress has either passed clean extensions of unemployment benefits, which we've opposed, or extensions that are jokes," Keller said.

The agreement reached by 10 senators — equally split between Democrats and Republicans — would pay for the five months in additional jobless-insurance benefits by extending certain U.S. custom duties for 10 years. Changes to a federal pension program over 10 years would also offset the costs of the benefits, the lawmakers said.

Several of the senators who negotiated the agreement are, not surprisingly, from three states with the highest jobless rates in February. Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Nevada Republican Dean Heller led negotiations. Both senators from Illinois — Richard Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, and Republican Mark Kirk — were also part of the group. As were both senators from Ohio, Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown. Ohio is in the top third of states with the highest jobless rates.

With a floor vote likely later in March, and the five Republicans added to the 55 votes the Democrats can muster, the deal appears to have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to escape a filibuster.

But then there's the House, where its prospects are much more uncertain. Would Speaker John Boehner insist on support from a majority of the Republican majority before he scheduled a vote? Or would he let the legislation move to the House floor without that?

Sister Clark believes that decision might come down to how "fed up" Boehner is with the House's Tea Party faction when the Senate legislation moves to the House. "If he's fed up enough, he may well just do a straight up-and-down vote," she says. "He will get tremendous pressure against that. I think there's a slim chance he might do an up-down vote, but it's slim."

That's particularly true since it's an election year, during which Boehner would prefer to keep his House GOP conference as unified as possible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.