Senators reach deal extending jobless benefits


J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., second from left, accompanied by fellow Senate Republicans, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, where they discussed benefits to long-term jobless workers. From left are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Heller, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Published Thu, Mar 13, 2014 (2:11 p.m.)

Updated Thu, Mar 13, 2014 (2:56 p.m.)

WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed have struck a new bipartisan deal to restore funding for long-suspended emergency unemployment benefits – and this time, it might have enough votes to squeak by the Senate.

“I am so glad that both Democrats and Republicans have come together on a proposal that will finally give Americans certainty about their unemployment benefits,” Heller said in a statement announcing the deal.

The pair of senators – Heller, a Republican, and Reed, a Democrat – announced the deal has the support of at least 5 Senate Republicans. The legislation would extend funding for emergency unemployment benefits for five months and work retroactively to pay benefit checks missed since funding expired on Dec. 28.

Provided all Senate Democrats remain on board with the bill, it could collect enough votes to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold that has, thus far, remained elusive.

The new legislation pays for the cost of the benefits extension with a mechanism called “pension smoothing” – temporarily lowering employers’ obligations to contribute to employee pension plans, thereby retaining more corporate income that is federally taxable. It also ends unemployment insurance benefits for millionaires and establishes a reinforced mechanism of referrals to get the long-term unemployed back to work.

The last time the Senate tried to pass an extension of unemployment benefits, it fell one vote short.

“We are one Republican vote away from restoring unemployment insurance,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said following the vote in early February.

Republicans Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois have joined Heller to sign on as co-sponsors of the new deal.

But no matter what happens in the Senate, steeper hurdles await in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has given no indication he is in any hurry to put an unemployment benefits extension on the floor.

In response, House Democrats have been drumming up support for a discharge petition on unemployment benefits. As legislative tools go, it’s seldom-used – but the thrust of it is that if the minority can collect 218 signatures for a discharge petition, it forces the speaker to bring the bill they’re petitioning for to the House floor for a vote.

“Why should one person in the House of Representatives decide whether we act to extend UI benefits or raise the minimum wage or vote to pass immigration reform or vote on a jobs package?” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said when explaining his decision to sign onto the discharge petition – the 20th representative to do so. “Why should one person be able to prevent the 434 other of us to have an up-or-down vote. Give us a vote. If we lose the vote, then we tried. But this speaker and the Republicans in the House have decided that they don’t want to govern.“

“More than 2 million Americans, including some 26,000 in Nevada, are struggling to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and gas in their car because House Republicans have refused to vote to renew unemployment insurance,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said. “It’s time for Republicans to do the right thing and act immediately to preserve this critical lifeline for our families and our economy.”

There are only 199 House Democrats, however, making the chances of securing 218 signatures a tall order. Even though about two dozen House Republicans have called on Boehner to schedule an unemployment insurance vote, a discharge petition is a more direct – and politically risky – challenge to his leadership.

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