After all that 2 million of this nation's unemployed workers have gone through, it is hard to say anything positive about the news that Senate Democratic leaders have reached a deal with five Senate Republicans on a renewal of emergency unemployment benefits that were shut off December 28. But it is a deal, and now is the time to tell Congress to end the delays and get this vital support into the hands of the long-term unemployed.
If this deal passes the House and the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, this will be a big deal for people who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks despite their diligent efforts to search for a job.
But that is a way-too-big "if," largely because of continued obstruction by Republicans in the House – key House conservatives quickly voiced opposition – and also because an actual vote in the Senate is still more than a week away, after a return from recess March 24.
Frankly, it is hard to even applaud the Senate for taking this long to agree to a break in this three-month filibuster that will support these unemployed workers only until May. "This agreement is not perfect," says Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project in a statement, one of the most fierce fighters on this issue. "We would prefer a longer-term renewal, to avoid refighting this battle in the early summer."
The agreement also runs afoul of a principle we and other progressive organizations laid down early on in this fight – that the benefits not be "offset" or paid for by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. When we have an economy as sluggish as this one, extra spending is needed to boost the economy. Spending on unemployment insurance is especially effective as an economic boost – every dollar spent boosting the incomes of the unemployed while they look for work adds $1.64 of economic output.
But the options that this agreement uses to cover the cost of extending the benefits are among the least offensive choices, such as an extension of customs user fees and allowing corporations to defer pension payments so that the federal government can tax the money not put into pension plans.
The task now is to keep the pressure on the Senate, especially Senate Republicans, and to build pressure in the House.
Five Senate Republicans are reported to be supporters of the deal to renew emergency unemployment benefits: Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). The continued support of these five senators, plus all of the Democratic caucus (53 Democrats plus two independents), for this deal to survive a potential Republican filibuster. During the recess, senators need to be told that this is a key vote – one that they will remember when the senator is up for reelection.
The same is true in the House, where as of right now House Speaker John Boehner has not yet committed to even allowing a vote on unemployment compensation. That is why this week Rep. Brad Schneider filed a discharge petition demanding a vote to extend the program. In order for the discharge petition to succeed, it has to be signed by a majority of the House – 218 members, including at least 19 Republicans who would break ranks with their leadership.
This should be simple – allow a vote on the House floor to extend unemployment insurance benefits to people who are struggling to find work in a weak economy and who need these benefits to feed themselves, house themselves and do the hard work of finding a job. As we urge the Senate to act, House members returning to their districts also need to hear us loud and clear: Stop the stalling and posturing. Sign the discharge petition. Extend emergency unemployment benefits.
This article has been updated to clarify the position of House Speaker John Boehner.