By Alan Fram
Bipartisan Senate bargainers ended a long-running election-season standoff and struck a compromise renewing expired jobless benefits for five months for more than 2 million Americans who have been out of work the longest, the lawmakers said Thursday.
Approval of the $9.7 billion measure seemed likely by the Democratic-led Senate when it returns in late March from a weeklong recess. That would throw the issue into the Republican-run House, where its fate seemed uncertain.
The parties have dueled over the issue since late last year and it has become fodder for this year’s congressional elections. The two sides are competing to show they are trying to create jobs and help families support themselves in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
As the stalemate dragged on, Democrats — backed by President Barack Obama — had said opposition by most Republicans to extending the emergency benefits showed GOP indifference toward helping those suffering most from that recession. Republicans said they wanted an extension that was fully paid for and which improved government programs for supporting the jobless and helping them find work.
Two leaders of the negotiations —Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev. — said in a statement that the deal would be retroactive to Dec. 28, when the emergency benefits program expired.
“We’re not at the finish line yet, but this is a bipartisan breakthrough,” Reed said.
Heller expressed satisfaction that “Democrats and Republicans have come together on a proposal that will finally give Americans certainty about their unemployment benefits.”
Rhode Island had an unemployment rate in December of 9.3 percent, while Nevada’s was 9 percent — the two worst rates in the nation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney urged Congress to help the long-term unemployed by approving the compromise, saying, “This is not just the right thing to do for these Americans looking for work, it’s the right thing to do for our economy.”
Lawmakers said the proposal was fully paid for, with the bulk of the money raised by extending some customs fees through 2024 and changing how some companies set aside money for pensions, in effect increasing their taxes. More federal revenue would be raised by letting some companies make earlier payments to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which guarantees workers’ pensions.
The deal would end jobless payments to people earning more than $1 million a year, similar to a provision sought by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John Tester, D-Mont. The lawmakers cited 2010 data showing that 0.03 percent of taxpayers earned over $1 million and received some form of federal or state unemployment benefits.
The agreement also has a provision sought by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, aimed at improving programs that help the long-term unemployed find new jobs and strengthening how the government verifies that they are eligible for unemployment benefits and assistance in finding jobs.
The measure will need 60 Senate votes to overcome Republican procedural tactics aimed at killing it. But with Democrats having 55 votes — including two usually supportive independents — supporters seemed to have a strong chance of reaching that threshold because five Republicans co-sponsored the announced deal.
They were Heller, Collins and Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Jobless Americans can qualify initially for state-sponsored unemployment benefits that generally run for 26 weeks. After that, they can receive emergency federal coverage that lasts from 14 weeks to 47 weeks, depending on how high unemployment is in their state.
When the emergency program expired Dec. 28, 1.3 million people immediately lost those benefits. Since then an average of 72,000 people weekly exhausted state benefits and could not receive emergency coverage, according to the liberal National Employment Law Project, bringing the current total to just over 2 million.
Average weekly emergency benefits last year were $287, the group said.
In December, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans would consider extending emergency benefits “as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again.”
He said at the time that the White House had yet to introduce a plan that meets his standards.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel had no immediate comment Thursday on the Senate compromise.