National News

January 8, 2014

Jobless bill clears hurdle in bipartisan surprise

WASHINGTON — Election-year legislation to revive expired federal jobless benefits unexpectedly cleared an early hurdle on Tuesday, offering a hint of bipartisan compromise in Congress and a glimmer of hope to the long-term jobless and their families.

“Let’s get this done,” implored President Barack Obama at the White House, shortly after six Republicans sided with Democrats on a 60-37 Senate vote to keep the measure alive.

Even so, the fate of the three-month reinstatement remained uncertain in an atmosphere of intense partisanship at the dawn of an election year.

The two parties have made it clear they intend to battle for the support of millions of voters who have suffered economically through the worst recession in decades and the slow, plodding recovery that has followed.

The often-cited phrase is “income disparity” — the gap between the rich and the economically squeezed. Democrats are expected to follow the effort on jobless benefits with another pocketbook measure, a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage.

The maneuvering on Tuesday was intense. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell proposed paying for the renewal of federal jobless benefits by delaying a requirement for millions of Americans to purchase coverage under “Obamacare” — an attempt to force Democrats to take a public stand on that highly controversial issue.

Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who generally seeks to shield his rank and file from politically painful votes, deemed McConnell’s proposal a non-starter.

At the same time, Reid and White House officials suggested they would be receptive to cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to offset the cost of a yearlong renewal of the program, if Republicans would first agree to turn the benefits back on for three months without preconditions.

Reid also said he’d be willing to consider allowing votes on proposed changes, but avoided a flat commitment on a demand Republicans said was essential.

The legislation at the heart of the maneuvering would restore benefits averaging $256 weekly to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless Americans who were cut off when the program expired Dec. 28. Duration of federal coverage generally ranges from 14 to 47 weeks, depending on the level of unemployment within individual states. The three-month cost to the Treasury is estimated at $6.4 billion.

Without action by Congress, hundreds of thousands more will feel the impact in the months ahead as their state-funded benefits expire, generally after 26 weeks.

Democrats had appeared poised to blame Republicans for blocking the legislation, and the outcome of Tuesday’s vote appeared to catch them off-guard.

The six Republicans who voted to overcome a filibuster were Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Heller, Coats and Portman all represents states with unemployment above the national average of 7 percent.

Coats, for one, immediately made clear that his vote came with conditions attached. He said he opposes the measure as drafted, and would vote against it on final passage if Reid “again obstructs senators from offering amendments.”

The Indiana Republican said he believes any extension in benefits should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget to prevent deficits from rising. He said he also favors provisions to help “put Americans back to work,” comments similar to those made by McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner during the day.

Reid, in comments to reporters, said unemployment benefits had been extended several times when George W. Bush was president and Congress did not insist on paying for them with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

“This is new religion to them,” he said of Republicans.

Any debate over paying for renewing jobless benefits is almost certain to circle back to a perennial disagreement over taxes.

In last month’s successful negotiations over spending legislation, Democrats sought to close tax loopholes to keep deficits from rising. Republicans refused, demanding spending cuts or higher fees instead.

At the same time the two parties struggle with one another, Republicans are also under pressure from outside groups who oppose any renewal of jobless benefits, including some with ties to the tea party.

Any legislation that clears the Senate would also have to make it through the House, where dozens of tea party-aligned lawmakers are in office.

In a statement issued shortly after the Senate vote, Boehner, R-Ohio,  said he has previously informed the White House that any measure to renew unemployment benefits “should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it.”

At the White House, Obama, too, said he was siding with victims of the recession.

“These aren’t folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen,” he said. “They’re out there actively looking for work.”

At issue is a system that provides as much as 47 weeks of federally funded benefits, beginning after the exhaustion of state benefits, usually 26 weeks in duration.

The first tier of additional benefits is 14 weeks and generally available to all who have used up their state benefits.

An additional 14 weeks is available in states where unemployment is 6 percent or higher. Nine more weeks of benefits are available in states with joblessness of 7 percent or higher. In states where unemployment is 9 percent or higher, another 10 weeks of benefits are available.

Officials also said a little-noticed provision in the legislation is specifically designed to benefit the long-term unemployed in North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a stiff challenge for a new term.

It would make residents eligible for long-term benefits by permitting the state to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Labor. State residents are currently ineligible because of state benefits were reduced below a federal standard.

1
Text Only
National News
  • 10 Things to Know for Thursday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday.

    April 23, 2014

  • US weighs clemency for inmates jailed for 10 years

    The Justice Department is encouraging nonviolent federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars to apply for clemency, officials announced Wednesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • High court tosses $3.4M award to child porn victim

    The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a plea to make it easier for victims of child pornography to collect money from people who view their images online, throwing out a nearly $3.4 million judgment in favor of a woman whose childhood rape has been widely seen on the Internet. Two dissenting justices said Congress should change the law to benefit victims.

    April 23, 2014

  • Airport security vulnerabilities not uncommon

    For all the tens of billions of dollars that the nation has spent on screening passengers and their bags, few airports made a comparable investment to secure the airplanes themselves.

    April 23, 2014

  • Deal signs bill expanding gun rights in Georgia

    Gov. Nathan Deal has signed legislation expanding where people with licenses to carry can bring their guns in Georgia.

    April 23, 2014

  • Indian film awards arrive in Tampa, Fla., but why?

    The so-called Bollywood Oscars have been held in Macau, Singapore, London — and now, Tampa?

    April 23, 2014

  • Indictment: Prosecutor targeted in kidnapping plot

    A North Carolina prosecutor was the intended target of an elaborate kidnapping plot, but the kidnappers looked up the wrong address on the Internet and abducted the prosecutor’s father instead, according to an indictment released Tuesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • Republican activists push party on gay marriage

    As bans against gay marriage crumble and public opinion on the issue shifts rapidly, some Republicans are pushing the party to drop its opposition to same-sex unions, part of a broader campaign to get the GOP to appeal to younger voters by de-emphasizing social issues.

    April 23, 2014

  • Missouri executes inmate for 1993 farm slaying

    Missouri executed an inmate early Wednesday only a few miles from the farm where prosecutors say he orchestrated the 1993 killing of a couple whose cows he wanted to steal.

    April 23, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Wednesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday.

    April 22, 2014

AP Video