Three months after Congress allowed the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program to expire, the Senate is poised to restart it. Since December 28, over two million long-term unemployed workers and their families have been denied the assistance they need to meet basic necessities including food and housing. This week the Senate is set to vote to retroactively extend the EUC program for 5 months for workers who have exhausted their state benefits (26 weeks in most states). Contrary to some myths, these are not individuals who refuse to look for work and are enjoying free time. In order to receive EUC they must be actively looking for work, a daunting task when there are three job seekers for every available job.
In February, the Senate failed to move an 11-month extension of EUC without offsetting the cost and fell one vote short of passing a 3-month extension that was fully paid for. The elusive fifth Republican needed to garner a 60-vote majority could not be secured. Republicans proposed offsets unacceptable to Democrats, including ones that would result in lost benefits affecting the children of immigrants and people with disabilities. (See more details in the February 10 Human Needs Report.)
Finally last week, after a bipartisan agreement on offsets, the Senate passed a procedural vote 65-34, paving the way for final passage this week. Ten Republicans joined all Democrats and the two Independents to end debate and bring the vote on passage to the floor. The nearly $10 billion cost of the5-month extension is paid for by allowing businesses to contribute less to tax-deductible retirement benefits resulting in higher tax liabilities and by extending U. S. customs user fees. The bill also contains language relating to re-employment programs for unemployed workers and preventing millionaires from receiving EUC.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) continues to insist he will not allow an EUC vote on the House floor. His initial objections have been met: that the bill needs to be paid for and that it must contain job-creation provisions. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that restoring EUC throughout 2014 will increase employment by 200,000 jobs. After dragging their feet for months, House Republicans are now using as an excuse a letter sent to them by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA), the administrators responsible for running the program, that raised concerns about the administrative difficulties of retroactively restarting the program. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez addressed NASWA’s concerns in his letter to Senate leaders stating, “I am confident that there are workable solutions for all of the concerns raised by NASWA…. The Department of Labor has consistently worked with states to implement these extensions in an effective, collaborative and prompt fashion, and will do so again.”
Advocates believe that if EUC were to reach the House floor as a free-standing bill it would pass. Recalcitrance on the part of Republicans led some Democratic members and advocates to press for attaching the EUC extension to other must-pass legislation as a way to get it through the House. The obvious vehicle was the House-passed 12-month fix to the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR or ‘doc fix’) bill. If such legislation is not enacted, doctors of Medicare patients would see their reimbursement rates drop precipitously by 24 percent starting April 1. The Senate leadership was not willing to miss the deadline for avoiding the reduction in physician payments by attempting to attach EUC to the bill, even though no drop in reimbursements would have occurred until the end of the week. (See article on SGR in this issue.)
Advocates believe that it is unconscionable that Medicare doctors are spared a cut in their reimbursements while many increasingly desperate unemployed workers have remained without aid for months. The strategy will be to continue to press the House leadership to allow a vote.
Because the Senate unemployment insurance bill has revenue-generating offsets and revenue bills must originate in the House, the bill that the Senate will almost certainly pass is attached to House revenue bill H.R. 3979, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act.