When legislative business got underway on Thursday morning, it looked as though there was a decent chance that a long-awaited Senate bill extending unemployment insurance coverage to millions of jobless workers would finally be passed. By Thursday afternoon, though, political gamesmanship had determined that jobless workers waiting for relief would have to wait a bit longer – possibly quite a bit longer.
The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which expired in December, is designed to supplement state-level benefits that run out after about 26 weeks. The federal extension has historically been practically automatic in times of extended high unemployment, such as the one the U.S. is currently experiencing. Its renewal had been more or less a sure thing throughout the slow recovery from the Great Recession. When it expired late last year due to political disagreements, the general assumption was that it would be promptly renewed when Congress returned in January.
But it didn’t get renewed in January. Or February. Or March.
Since then, more than 2.2 million Americans trying to find jobs have seen their benefits cut off – benefits that only a few months before were available to workers in identical circumstances. People have defaulted on their mortgages others have been evicted, along with their families, from apartments; still others have burned through retirement savings in the absence of federal aid that has in the past been made available as a matter of routine.
In March, a compromise bill emerged in the Senate that would extend benefits for five months, retroactive to December. The bill would also have to pass the House of Representatives, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has been notably cool to the idea. But many supporters of the bill believe that a Senate bill, passed with bipartisan support, would put enough pressure on the House to force Boehner’s hand.
To be clear, there is virtually no question about whether this bill will pass the Senate. A coalition of 60 senators, including both Democrats and Republicans have voted – twice now – to end debate on the measure, meaning that once it comes to a vote it will need only 51 votes for final passage, a hurdle it will clear easily. It could quite easily have been passed today. In fact, it could just as easily have been passed last week.
But the Senate is a funny place. The number of opportunities to delay progress seems at times, almost infinite. For that reason, the chamber relies on “unanimous consent” rulings to speed things along. The Senate has an enormous number of procedural rules, but if everybody agrees to waive them, the can be, in effect, ignored.
That was Senate Democrats’ hope coming into this week. A cloture vote last week showed that passage of the unemployment insurance bill was basically inevitable. Historically, when the writing is on the wall, senators have generally granted unanimous consent to let measures move forward, rather than engaging in delay for delay’s sake. Republicans forced Democrats to jump through some procedural hoops last week, but Democrats hoped that this week the barriers would fall.
The unemployment insurance bill, though, is the victim of a feud between Senate Republicans and Majority Leader Reid. The Republicans think that Reid has tyrannically limited their ability to offer amendments to legislation. Reid, on the other hand, would argue that Republican amendments in recent years have been generally nothing more than political grandstanding – proposals with no chance of passage, introduced with the sole purpose of making Senate Democrats take politically embarrassing votes.
On Thursday, it played out this way:
Democrats came to work holding out hope that Republicans – in the face of guaranteed eventual passage of the unemployment insurance bill – would grant unanimous consent to waive some procedural requirements and allow a vote to take place.
Republicans, though, annoyed by Reid’s refusal to allow them to offer amendments, wouldn’t play ball. South Dakota Sen. John Thune went to the floor and offered a deal. Republicans would allow the bill to move forward Thursday if Reid allowed a vote on an amendment that would:
- Authorize the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline
- Require the approval of various natural gas export licenses
- Bar the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing greenhouse gas emission limits at power plants
- Prevent the enactment of a carbon tax
- Change the Affordable Care Act’s definition of a full time worker to 40 hours per week
- Delay for a year any elements of the ACA taking effect after January 1, 2014, including the individual mandate
- Repeal the Medical Device Tax passed as part of the ACA
- Repeal every other element of the ACA not specifically addressed in the rest of the amendment
- Extend multiple tax breaks and exemptions for businesses
- Create restrictions on the enactment of other federal regulation
Almost as an afterthought, the amendment threw in a job-training program.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats declined the deal. The upshot is that the vote will take place, and the bill will pass, on Monday night. Reid could have kept the Senate in session over the weekend, but he has no power to compel all the senators to stay in Washington. That means that while he could have forced passage of the bill, but he would have done so with a reduced body of senators. And, given the resistance to the proposal by Speaker Boehner and others in the House leadership, Democrats want to pass the bill with the largest possible bipartisan majority, to increase the pressure on their House counterparts.
However, by failing to pass the bill this week, the Senate has guaranteed that the House will have only three legislative days to work on the bill before lawmakers leave town on a two-week recess. Considering how little interest Boehner has expressed in passing a renewal of the extension, and how unlikely it is that the Republican House and Democratic Senate could come to agreement on a controversial bill in the space of three days, the delays in the Senate have virtually guaranteed that nothing happens on the unemployment insurance front until the end of April – four months after the EUC program expired.
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