Unemployment extension faces uncertain path forward

BY Terence Burlij  January 8, 2014 at 9:05 AM EST


President Obama shakes hands with a group of people affected by the expiration of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless after speaking in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. Photo by: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a surprise move, the Senate voted Tuesday to move forward with debate on extending unemployment insurance benefits, but the legislation is unlikely to advance further unless lawmakers find a way to bridge their differences over offsetting the cost of the legislation.

The vote was 60 to 37, with six Republicans joining 54 members of the Democratic caucus to advance the bill. But many in the GOP, including some who voted in favor of taking up the measure, are demanding that the $6.5 billion price tag for a three-month extension of benefits be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The Morning Line

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he voted to proceed “with the hope that during the debate the Senate will agree to pay for the extension and work to improve the unemployment insurance program so it works better to connect those unemployed with available jobs.” He added: “Not paying for the extension adds to the nation’s historic debt, causing more uncertainty for the economy and making it harder to create jobs.”

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said even though he opposes the bill in its current form, he voted to advance the bill because he believes “the Senate should have the opportunity to debate and improve this important legislation.” But he warned he would oppose final passage “if Majority Leader [Harry] Reid once again obstructs senators from offering amendments.”

Reid told reporters Tuesday that he would be willing to consider proposals on how to pay for the extension. “If they come with something that’s serious, I will talk to them. But, right now, everyone should understand, the low-hanging fruit is gone.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier raised the idea of paying for the unemployment benefits by delaying the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act for one year, but Reid quickly dismissed the offer. “He wants to pay for them by whacking Obamacare. That’s a nonstarter.”

President Barack Obama looked to ratchet up the pressure on lawmakers to pass an extension, hosting an event at the White House shortly after the Senate vote with out-of-work Americans who have lost their unemployment benefits. “The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They’re not lacking in motivation. They’re coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations,” Mr. Obama said.

He said Congress must finish the job when it comes to restoring benefits to some 1.3 million Americans. “They haven’t actually passed it. So we’ve got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay, and we need the House of Representatives to be able to vote for it as well. That’s the bottom line.”

Even as the president issued that public call to action, he also continued to work the phones behind the scenes, hoping to win over Republicans on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Robert Costa detail the ongoing outreach by Mr. Obama:

Obama called at least three key Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) — in the run-up to the vote, signaling that he is willing to discuss other spending cuts.

“When he called, the president did not eliminate the possibility of paying for an extension, but he did not get into how exactly he would do that,” Collins said Tuesday.

White House advisers said that Obama is willing to discuss spending offsets only for a ­longer-term extension of unemployment benefits, not the three-month bill under consideration.

That sets up a delicate negotiation. Of the six Republican senators who voted yes Tuesday — Collins, Portman, Heller, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — five said they were unlikely to support the legislation as it is currently drafted.

If the president and Senate Democrats are able to reach a deal with Republicans in the chamber, the agreement could still face long odds in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has said that any extension must not only be paid for, but also include GOP job creation measures, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan,” Boehner said in a statement Tuesday. “If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”

With many states still experiencing high unemployment rates, Republicans leaders are also cautioning their members to show compassion when talking about Americans who’ve lost their jobs. The Post’s Costa obtained a memo sent to House Republicans stating that unemployment is a “personal crisis” for people and that the chamber will give an extension of benefits “proper consideration” if Democrats put forward a plan that is “fiscally responsible.”

The document highlights the delicate balance Republicans face as Democrats continue to push the issue of income inequality heading into the 2014 midterm elections. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last month found that Democrats lead Republicans by a 45 percent to 17 percent margin when it comes to which party shows more compassion and concern for people.

By focusing the debate on the cost of extending unemployment benefits and whether it should be offset, Republicans stand a better chance of avoiding charges they lack empathy for Americans who continue to struggle as the economy attempts to rebound from the recession.

The NewsHour aired an overview of the Senate vote on Tuesday night’s program.

GATES ON THE ATTACK

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has written a memoir in which he levels sharp criticism of Mr. Obama’s leadership, according to a story about the book by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and one by Thom Shanker of the New York Times.

Among the revelations detailed in the book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War,” is the judgment by Gates that the president didn’t “believe in his own strategy” when it came to the war in Afghanistan. Gates also recounts what he describes as a “remarkable” exchange between Mr. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which both conceded that their opposition to the 2007 troops surge in Iraq was based upon political considerations for their presidential bids.

He also describes Vice President Joe Biden, who had helped bolster Mr. Obama’s foreign policy credentials when he was added to the presidential ticket in 2008, as “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

The White House responded to this charge with a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden:

“The President disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment — from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world. President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.”

Hayden’s statement added that the president appreciates Gates’ years of service and embraces differences of opinion among his advisers.

Gates rails against a number of situations in the book, including Congress broadly. Gates writes, from an excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal:

All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.

The Wall Street Journal has rounded up the revelations in this list.

Aside from promoting his book, Gates is set to become president of the Boy Scouts of America.

LINE ITEMS

  • Politico’s David Rogers reports on the progress with negotiations on an omnibus spending bill that would keep the government funded through September. “I’m very encouraged. I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Senate Appropriations chair Barbara Mikulski told Rogers. “We’re within striking distance. I think we’re going to get it.”

  • A slim majority of 51 percent of Americans are looking forward to the mid-term congressional elections this year, the Pew Research Center found in a new poll. Compare that to the 58 percent looking forward to the Sochi, Russia, winter olympics, and the 55 percent excited for the Super Bowl. The Academy Awards and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil don’t get nearly as good numbers as the election, with 24 percent and 22 percent, respectively, interested in those events.

  • The National Security Agency may no longer want to hold cell-phone data and instead could ask phone companies to analyze information, the Washington Post reported.

  • Bitcoin, the controversial Internet currency, has a growing lobbying presence behind it in the political world. Bloomberg News reports Ron Paul’s libertarian supporters have gotten behind it, and the Federal Elections Commission has seen Super Pacs emerge that are dedicated to it. At least one member of Congress accepts campaign donations in Bitcoin.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

TOP TWEETS

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Questions or comments? Email Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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