Heller, other GOP senators make counteroffer on jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate could be headed for another bumpy ride on extending federal jobless benefits to more than 2 million long-term unemployed workers.

Seven Republicans including Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada made a counteroffer late Thursday, after Democrats proposed a six-month extension of compensation checks, retroactive to when the emergency unemployment program expired on Dec. 28.

“We are going to give this one more college try to see if we can get something done that both sides can agree on,” Heller said.

The GOP senators are considered to hold the key votes necessary to pass any jobless benefits bill.

Earlier bills failed to pass, in large part because the Republicans and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada could not agree on the key issue of how multibillion-dollar costs should be offset through savings elsewhere in the budget so as not to add to the deficit.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced the Democrats’ latest bill on Tuesday, and Reid cleared a procedural path for it to be brought up in the coming days. It would pay for about $13 billion in renewed benefits with savings from a recently passed farm bill, Democrats said.

But Republicans are balking, saying that the farm bill savings might be illusory. “The CBO (Congressional Budget Office ) came out and said those revenues may not be produced,” Heller said.

The Republican offer, introduced as legislation on Thursday, would extend unemployment benefits for five months retroactive to December, at a reported $10 billion.

The benefits would be offset by savings through a change in federal pension accounting, extending certain customs user fees through 2024 and by eliminating “overlapping” payments to people who collect unemployment and Social Security disability benefits.

Heller said the Republican bid was only five months because that’s all the savings that could be found to pay for them.

Besides renewing benefits, the Republican bill contains provisions aimed at reforming the unemployment compensation system.

It would require benefit applicants to be interviewed to determine why they have been unable to find work, and if they should take other steps, such as enrolling for job training.

Additionally it would prohibit someone from collecting benefits if he or she fails to accept an offer of “suitable work” or if he or she refuses to apply for “suitable work” referred by a state employment agency.

It would deny benefits to people with adjusted gross income the previous year of more than $1 million.

The bill also would require the Secretary of Labor to prepare a report on consolidation of federal job training programs.

“Our proposal is fully paid for and will allow us to begin reforming a broken program that’s failing to connect Americans with jobs,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Other Republican sponsors are Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Dan Coats of Indiana and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Reid had no comment Friday on the Republican bill.

A Democratic official in the Senate said Republicans and Reed of Rhode Island, the Democrats’ point person on unemployment benefits, are talking, and it “remains to be seen” what happens.

Senate Majority Leader Reid said this week he wanted to hold a fresh vote on unemployment compensation soon but had not set a date. He said the Senate schedule was complicated by a snowstorm early in the week that caused votes to be postponed for two days.

The Senate is scheduled for a weeklong recess the week of March 17.

In the meantime, the number of job-seekers who have exhausted un­employment benefits has grown beyond 2 million, including more than 26,000 in Nevada, according to a report by Democratic staff on the House Ways and Means Committee. The ranks are growing by about 72,000 a week nationally and about 842 per week in Nevada, as the basic 26 weeks of state-funded benefits expire.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault at 202-783-1760 or STetreault@stephens media.com. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.