WASHINGTON — Key senators on Thursday announced a deal that would restore federal unemployment payments to more than 2 million Americans whose jobless benefits have exhausted while they remain unable to find work.
The agreement would provide five months of checks, retroactive to Dec. 28 when the federal emergency program for jobless benefits expired.
Senators acknowledged it is a fix that might prove temporary as the reinstated program would expire at the end of May without an assurance of funding beyond that.
At that point, “we’ll negotiate for more reforms, if in fact it does get extended or if there is a need for another extension,” said Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, a lead Republican negotiator. “We’ll sit down after this and talk about needs for a longer term.
“Right now the necessity was to make sure these individuals got the help they needed and the safety net would work,” Heller said.
The agreement was introduced as bipartisan legislation by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., along with Heller and eight other senators. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate of 9.1 percent ranks as highest in the nation.
Behind Rhode Island is Nevada, whose unemployment rate of 8.8 percent thrust its senators into lead roles. Heller was an early Republican advocate of restoring benefits while Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, had to sign off on any deal before it could go forward.
“This bipartisan compromise will help Americans who depend on unemployment insurance to pay the rent while they continue looking for a job,” Reid said. “I am confident that we will pass this bill in the coming days.”
Reid said the Senate could vote on it during the week of March 24. Senators departed the Capitol on Thursday evening for a weeklong recess.
Heller said at least five Republicans have agreed to vote for the bill, which would guarantee it a filibuster-proof 60 votes when joined by 55 members of the Democratic caucus who would be expected to vote for it.
The five-month benefit program would cost about $10 billion. In a key part of the deal, Democrats and Republicans agreed to offset that cost through an extension of certain customs fees and changes in pension accounting. Failure by the parties to compromise on how to pay for the benefits, or whether they needed to be offset at all, helped sink two earlier bills.
“This UI has been paid for,” said Heller, using Capitol Hill shorthand for “unemployment insurance.”
Along with restoring payments, the bill would deny unemployment benefits to people who had adjusted gross income of more than $1 million the previous year. Another Republican-sought reform that would prohibit someone from collecting benefits if he or she fails to accept an offer of “suitable work” was watered down to a study.
More than 1.7 million job-seekers who had been out of work for more than six months lost federal benefits on Dec. 28, after Congress failed to extend the program in a budget bill late last year.
For the first 26 weeks people who are unemployed collect state-paid benefits, and then move onto the federal program, where they qualify for additional weeks of benefits depending on the jobless rate of their states, up to 73 weeks,.
Each week, an estimated 72,000 additional job-seekers exhausted their state benefits, placing the total currently at roughly 2 million according to figures compiled by the Democratic staff of the House Ways and Means Committee.
In Nevada, the estimated number of people who have exhausted their unemployment has surpassed 26,000, according to Democrats.
Even if the Senate passes an extension bill later this month, the House would still need to act, and Republican leaders there have said they are reluctant to do so without an accompanying jobs plan from the Obama administration.
House Democrats this week launched an attempt to pressure Republicans, filing a “discharge petition” that would force leaders to call a vote if 218 lawmakers sign it.
“Every Member of Congress now has a decision to make: do I support extending unemployment insurance or not?” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. “If they decide not to sign, they are functionally abandoning those who have lost their benefits.”
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., also signed the petition. But at present there are 199 Democrats and 232 Republicans, so the petition would fail without the signatures of several dozen Republicans, and that was not expected to happen.
Nevada’s two Republican House members said they did not plan to sign.
Rep. Joe Heck favors extending jobless benefits, his spokesman said. But Heck signed a letter in December urging Republican leaders to act and believed that was sufficient signal of his support, the spokesman said.
Rep. Mark Amodei said the average stay for a Nevadan on unemployment insurance is about 40-45 weeks. “So when you talk about extending it to 73 weeks in a way that increases the federal debt and does nothing to help create jobs, that is not an approach I can support,” he said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.