Reid: Jobless aid to be 'first item of business' in new year

WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid said Thursday a bid to restore federal payments to more than a million jobless Americans will be “the first item of business” when the Senate returns to work in January.

Reid said new legislation would make benefits retroactive to Dec. 28, when checks will come to a halt for people who have been out of work and looking for a job for more than six months.

“This is something we are focused on like a laser,” Reid said. “I am confident we will be able to extend unemployment benefits.”

The Senate majority leader delivered the message as a promise to 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers, including 17,500 in Nevada who are being affected by the expiration of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

The remarks came a few hours before the House voted 332-94 in favor of a year-end budget deal that did not include an extension for the benefit program. The compensation was authorized in 2008 to help people who lost their jobs and were having difficultly finding new ones during the deep recession and uneven economic recovery.

Nevada Reps. Steven Horsford and Dina Titus, both Democrats, and Republican Mark Amodei voted for the bill. Rep Joe Heck, R-Nev., voted against it.

Horsford had been outspoken on extension of jobless benefits, but he said he was assured when he learned the matter will be revived when Congress returns from the holidays. “I did do everything I could to raise the importance of the issue,” he said.

In the meantime, he said the new budget covering the next two years will reduce the impact of automatic budget cuts put in place by the 2011 sequester, which he said will relieve pressure on Nellis and Creech Air Force bases in his district and also social service programs.

Amodei said the two-year deal “moves us away from government by crisis,” including a habit of keeping federal departments operating through a series of temporary resolutions that ultimately led to the 16-day government shutdown in October.

Likewise, Titus called the bill “a small step forward in preventing another manufactured government shutdown.”

Heck, a colonel in the Army Reserve, focused his opposition on the budget’s cuts to military pensions.

Phased in over three years, the budget would reduce cost-of-living raises by 1 percent annually for military retirees who are not disabled and not yet 62. By that age, a retiree who served a 20-year career in the military would lose nearly 20 percent of his or her retirement pay, according to the Military Officers Association

“We must provide for those who currently wear the uniform, but not by taking away from those who wore the uniform,” Heck said, adding the deal “breaks the time-honored promise to our veterans of not making changes to military retirement for current retirees.”

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day about unemployment benefits, Reid said he was “disappointed as anyone could be” that the jobless insurance program was not extended. Nevada has a nation-worst 9.3 percent unemployment rate and jobless residents receive the maximum duration of benefits.

The program has been extended several times but never without debate. The most recent extension passed early this year cut back on the program, and Republicans in recent weeks raised questions anew whether it should be continued further in an economy that appeared to be improving.

Under the program, federal payments are extended to people who have exhausted their basic 26 weeks of state-funded unemployment insurance. The duration of federal checks vary by state depending on the severity of joblessless, up to a combined 73 weeks.

“That will be the first item we come to when we come back,” Reid said. He noted some Republicans have publicly endorsed extending benefits, including fellow Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.

Reid said Heller has endorsed renewing the benefits without having to cut money elsewhere in the budget to pay for them, which is usually one of the contentious issues surrounding the jobless program. Extending benefits for a year would cost an estimated $25 billion.

“The politics of this are very strong,” Reid said. “People who have been unemployed for a very long period of time are Democrats and they are Republicans. This is an issue that Republicans, I think, need more than we need. This is something that would be extremely difficult for them to turn away from.”

Anticipating Congress might take up the issue in the new year and pass a bill retroactively, the Nevada Employment Security Division is advising recipients to keep filing for benefits throughout January.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.