WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are going home on Thursday for a five-week summer recess and are further away than ever from reviving unemployment benefits that expired eight months ago for thousands of long-term jobless.
Lawmakers who want to restore payments held a final rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Over time the weekly events shifted in tone — from urging action on an unemployment bill to partisan messaging that sought to pin blame on House Republican leaders for failing to call a vote.
“I guess we are going to leave here, but with no less determination and a keen sense of sadness,” said Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich. “It should not have happened this way.”
After months of struggle to build a coalition, senators passed a $10 billion five-month benefit bill in April. But it stalled in the House when President Barack Obama failed to meet a demand by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for specific job-creation amendments that he argued would provide a sustainable solution rather than continuing to cut checks.
In the meantime, an improving economy and declining unemployment rates in most states dampened any sense of urgency for Congress to act. Some economists said there was evidence the improving picture was reaching people out of work for long periods, even in places such as Nevada where construction was making a comeback.
Advocates suffered a possibly fatal setback a few weeks ago. A pension accounting trick they were counting on to help pay for the jobless benefits was grabbed instead by congressional leaders to pay for a highway bill. So they were forced back to the drawing board once again.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who took the lead on unemployment, had difficulty in an interview Wednesday framing a strategy to get a bill passed. But he insisted he and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., “are going to give it one last shot” when the Senate returns from summer recess.
“The problem is, the only realistic path forward is an unpaid-for bill … but that loses all the Republicans. As an amendment it may end up failing.” Heller said. “It is going to be very, very difficult.”
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said Democrats plan events through the summer in their home districts to spotlight the middle class, with jobless benefits one of the focus points.
“We are going to keep the messaging up through August,” Titus said. “If some of these Republicans who are so recalcitrant find their constituents demanding some of these things, you might see some softening in September.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.