WASHINGTON – A bill that revives jobless payments for more than 2 million people who have been out of work for longer than six months passed the Senate on Monday but still faces an uncertain future.
The 59-38 vote came after three months of fits and starts by senators. The compromise they finally reached would extend emergency federal unemployment benefits until the end of May and retroactive to Dec. 28 when the program expired and cut off 1.7 million people.
Advocates conceded the bill is a short term fix that could need to be renegotiated within the next few months.
“It’s limited in terms of time,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who formed the Senate deal with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Heller said a followup bill may not be needed if the economy continues to improve, although recovery has been uneven among the states. But in the meantime, he said, “this extension cannot wait any longer.”
Attention now turns to the U.S. House, where Democrats and a small group of Republicans are calling for quick action but where GOP leaders say they were unimpressed with the Senate bill and show little interest in advancing it without significant changes.
The prospects for timely action is further complicated as Congress is scheduled at the end of the week to leave Washington for a two-week spring recess.
In the meantime, the estimated number of jobless people who have exhausted their basic 26 weeks of state-paid unemployment has grown past 2.3 million. Federal benefits average $300 per week for a maximum of 47 additional weeks depending on a state’s jobless rate.
The number of long term unemployed includes more than 29,000 estimated in Nevada, where the unemployment rate of 8.5 percent ranks third-highest behind Rhode Island and Illinois. In the past year, however, the Nevada jobless rate has dropped from 10.2 percent, with 140,899 people out of work, to the current rate with 116,638 unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and six other GOP lawmakers on Monday urged House Speaker John Boehner in a letter to “immediately” consider the Senate bill or something similar.
But Boehner has said the Senate bill is “unworkable,” citing concerns by state unemployment administrators about possible difficulties in determining eligibility and the amount of retroactive payments for some people who may have gotten work in the meantime. The Obama administration has sought to rebut those concerns, saying they can be worked out.
Boehner also maintains the legislation contains little that would help get more people back to work.
“It doesn’t create any jobs,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.,echoed on Friday. “Right now, we are in the business of trying to see how we can get people back to work.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the No. 2 Democratic leader, floated the idea of renewing benefits but not making them retroactive. Cantor on Friday showed little interest in the idea.
But some Republicans have proposed attaching some of their party’s favored policies to the Democrat-sought benefits extension, such as approval for the Keystone Pipeline or repeal of a controversial tax on medical equipment.
House Democrats in the meantime planned to turn up their voices and attempt to paint Republicans as uncaring for people struggling to find work.
“The House must take up this common-sense extension for a vote as soon as possible,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. “Our constituents cannot wait while Republicans play political games.”
Contact Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.