No quick political fix to extend jobless benefits

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WASHINGTON — There is no clear path ahead when it comes to extending long-term unemployment insurance, with benefits for 81,887 in Illinois set to expire on Dec. 28, three days after Christmas. Congress went home for the year without a fix. This one may be tough.

While there is a cheer that Democrats and Republicans forged a budget deal, it came at a price: GOP lawmakers would not include maintaining long-term benefits in the package.

There is a bipartisan plan for a three-month fix pending in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., are the chief sponsors of the stopgap measure, with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised a vote on the three-month solution no later than Jan. 7. Senators wound up the year without voting on the Reed-Heller proposal because of the opposition of some GOP senators.

“It’s a good bill, and it deserves a vote,” Reid said on Thursday.

“And I hope my Republican colleagues will work with us to schedule a vote in a very timely fashion, which to this point they haven’t. We’ve come to the floor. We had other various people ask unanimous consent to be able to move to it. The answer’s no. They blocked us from scheduling a vote on the end of this week,” Reid said.

Many Democrats are pushing for a one-year extension, but the three-month plan seems the only game in play right now.

President Barack Obama, at his Friday press conference, urged Congress to send him a three-month deal. “They should pass it, and I’ll sign it right away.”

Obama made a plaintive appeal as benefits will dry up in a matter of days for some. “I think we’re a better country than that. We don’t abandon each other when times are tough.” In 2014, the “first order of business” for Congress “should be making this right.”

Of all issues, it would seem that continuing a long-term unemployment benefit — a policy supported by former President George W. Bush — would have cross-aisle appeal.

That’s because Republicans and Democrats both have been getting laid off.  And while the economy is brightening, the jobless include folks in all sorts of income ranges. Or haven’t the Republicans noticed?

Obama tried to dilute the notion in some GOP circles that folks are encouraged to be hard-core slackers because they get unemployment checks beyond the standard 26 weeks of payments.

“Keep in mind,” Obama said, “unemployment insurance only goes to folks who are actively looking for work.”

At a briefing on Friday morning, Gene Sperling, the chairman of the White House National Economic Council said: “We have never as a country cut off emergency unemployment benefits when we’ve had this degree of long-term unemployment.”

Reid could probably elbow a jobless benefits extender through the Senate next month. The bigger hurdle — as it always is for the Obama White House — is the GOP-run House. 

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is open to an approach. “If Democrats propose a plan that is paid for and will do something to create new jobs, we’ll take a look at it,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck told me.

When it comes to the Illinois delegation in Congress, it is the Democrats who have been pushing for more jobless relief. Democrats will continue to pressure the GOP to extend benefits during this holiday period. Illinois Republicans have been pretty quiet on this one.

On Monday, Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Tammy Duckworth, both Illinois Democrats, will be part of a tele-press conference helmed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to talk about unemployment insurance.

Gov. Pat Quinn told me that he wrote a letter to the Illinois delegation urging a vote for more jobless help.

On Friday, Jack Dorgan, the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, blamed Quinn for the Illinois 8.7 percent jobless rate in November, calling for a “Republican governor to clean up this mess.”

The 81,887 who face benefit cuts — part of the Illinois jobless army — are not a statistic. They all have stories about the jobs they had and lost. They’re not political pawns. If Republicans in Illinois want to talk about unemployment, the first conversation should be about helping people who need to continue to get extended benefits.

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