House-Senate impasse on aid to jobless has workers in limbo

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2014 - 10:30 PM

As politicians spar over how to pay for extended benefits, millions can only wait and hope.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) looks at a count of Americans affected by the loss of long-term unemployment benefits, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 6, 2014. The Senate held a vote on a three-month extension of benefits but the 55-42 vote fell five short of breaking the threat of a Republican filibuster. From left: Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Reid, Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

– Cecil Rickman took a test last week in hopes of getting an interview that might eventually lead to work as a laborer.

Rickman, a 48-year-old Army veteran from Chisholm, Minn., has navigated many paths to potential employment since he lost his warehousing job in June 2013. None has led him back to a paycheck.

Rickman’s advice to politicians who have let extended unemployment benefits end for him and millions of other jobless Americans is simple:

“Try being unemployed. People get desperate.”

The Senate seems poised to address that desperation in the coming weeks with a new bipartisan bill that reinstates extended unemployment benefits that expired in December.

The House does not.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner last week said the Senate bill is administratively “unworkable,” signaling reluctance to bring it to a vote in his chamber. Meanwhile, a Democratic-driven discharge petition to force a House vote on another unemployment bill has not garnered the necessary 218 signatures.

From Minnesota, Democratic Reps. Rick Nolan, Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz have signed the petition. Democrat Rep. Collin Peterson and Republican Reps. Erik Paulsen, John Kline and Michele Bachmann have not.

The stumbling block is familiar — how to pay for added benefits to help people who have been out of work more than six months.

“We have always said that we’re willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Washington Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally responsible and gets to the root of the problem by helping to create more private-sector jobs,” Boehner said in a statement.

The Senate legislation allows employers to lower contributions to their employees’ pension plans, then uses taxes paid on the added revenue to fund benefits for the jobless. This accounting maneuver is called “pension smoothing.” The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan think tank, calls the move a gimmick that saves money in the early years but adds to the federal deficit in later years.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democrat who co-chairs Congress’ Joint Economic Committee and has studied long-term unemployment, believes the new Senate bill will pass in that chamber. It is by design a stopgap measure with a built-in six-month review to ensure support from Republicans who blocked earlier legislation from coming to a vote.

Klobuchar said she is “very optimistic” that the new bill, which has five listed Republican sponsors, will attract enough GOP votes to stymie another filibuster. The extension is necessary, she added, because the long-term unemployed from America’s Great Recession have a jobless rate roughly double that of other recent financial downturns.

Rickman, a former military policeman who served in the war in Bosnia, says he looked just as hard for jobs before Congress cut off his benefits as he has since. The only thing that has changed is that Rickman and his wife, whose seasonal job ended, now struggle even more to pay bills. They must seek handouts from food shelves. And they risk losing their house to foreclosure.

Roughly 28 percent of Minnesota’s unemployed citizens have been out of work for more than six months, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show. If Congress does not reinstate extended benefits, about 65,000 Minnesotans will be among nearly 4.9 million Americans whose unemployment insurance will run out by the end of 2014, according to the Joint Economic Committee’s Democratic staff.

New research from former White House economic adviser Alan Krueger concludes that “a concerted effort by policymakers, social organizations, communities and families, in addition to appropriate monetary policy” is the only way most long-term unemployed are likely to find decent jobs even as the economy recovers.

Democratic Sen. Al ­Franken of Minnesota held a constituent round table this week in Minnesota. Three participants — one in her 40s, one in her 50s and one in her 60s — had been out of work more than six months and had lost their benefits.

“They’ve worked their entire lives,” Franken said. “Each of them is working hard to get a job. They’ve gone back to get more skills. They’ve networked.”

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