Iowa risks leaving $116 million in unemployment benefits on the table

An estimated 29,183 long-term unemployed Iowans could qualify for some $116.3 million in additional benefits, but only if state legislators act quickly, according to a new report by the National Employment Law Project. Federal dollars could cover an extra 13 weeks of benefits for those Iowans. Follow me after the jump for details and background on the federal stimulus money we may leave on the table.

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Congress passes unemployment extension, no thanks to Iowa Republicans

President Obama is ready to sign a $34 billion bill to extend unemployment benefits to many out-of-work Americans after the U.S. Senate finally passed the bill last night and the House of Representatives followed suit today. Unemployment benefits for many Americans started running out in early June, but Senate Democrats failed in several attempts to overcome Republican filibusters of the measure. This week a cloture motion on the unemployment benefits bill finally passed 60-40, with Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine joining 58 Democrats to overcome a filibuster. (West Virginia now has a Democratic appointee filling Robert Byrd’s old seat; his long illness and death this summer had left Democrats one vote short of 60.)

Iowa’s Chuck Grassley joined the Republican filibuster again this week, and last night he voted no on the bill itself, which passed 59-39. Grassley’s office sent out this statement yesterday:

“There’s bipartisan consensus that Congress should extend unemployment insurance, but there’s no reason we can’t extend benefits and pay for it.  We’ve offered solutions, five separate times, on ways to pay, only to be rebuffed by the Democratic leadership.

“Iowans have told me time and time again that Congress must stop deficit spending, so I voted to extend unemployment insurance and pay for it.”

Give me a break. When we had a Republican president, Grassley never hesitated to vote for tax cuts for the wealthy, Medicare part D, or war supplemental funding bills that added to the deficit. In fact, under President George W. Bush the Republican-controlled Congress passed unemployment extensions without making sure the additional spending was “paid for.” Senator Tom Harkin got it right in his July 20 speech on the Senate floor:

“For far too long, the long-term unemployed have gone without the assistance they need because of political gamesmanship in the Senate.  Critics argue that we cannot help some of the most desperate workers in America if it adds a dime to the deficit, but in the next breath, they argue in favor of extending hundreds of billions of tax breaks for the most fortunate and privileged Americans was necessary.  Tell that to the working family in Iowa who, through no fault of their own, struggles with joblessness and cannot put food on the table.

“Some two and a half million unemployed Americans have seen their benefits terminated in recent weeks.  They are among the nearly 6.8 million Americans who have been out of work for more than half a year.  That’s the highest number of long-term unemployed we’ve had since we started keeping track in 1948.”  

The House approved the unemployment benefits extension by a vote of 272 to 152 (roll call). Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell all voted for the bill. Ten Democrats (mostly representing conservative districts) crossed the aisle to vote against the bill, and 31 House Republicans voted for it. That’s a surprisingly high number of Republicans going against their leadership. Iowa Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King stuck with the majority of their caucus. Not only do they lack compassion for some long-term unemployed Iowans whose benefits have run out, they apparently don’t understand that unemployment benefits are among the most stimulative forms of government spending.

It’s good news that benefits will be restored to millions of Americans in the coming weeks, but in other respects this bill falls short of what’s needed to address our long-term unemployment problem. Although the number of Americans out of work for at least six months is at its highest level in six decades, Congress still hasn’t done anything for people who have exhausted the full 99 weeks of eligibility for unemployment benefits. The House has approved more infrastructure spending and other measures that would create jobs, but for now the Senate seems unable to overcome GOP filibusters of further stimulus.

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Grassley backs Republican filibuster, killing jobs bill

The Senate version of a bill designed to create jobs, support state budgets and extend various tax credits and benefit programs failed to overcome a Republican filibuster yesterday. Tom Harkin was among 56 members of the Democratic caucus who voted for the cloture motion (which would end debate on the bill), but Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut voted with all the Republicans present, including Chuck Grassley, to kill the bill (roll call here). Joan McCarter observed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

voted yes, without changing his vote, signaling that this iteration of the bill is indeed dead.

Reid followed the vote by attempting to pass the emergency provisions of the bill, the “doc fix,” unemployment benefits extension, and FMAP as well as the homebuyer tax credit, as separate bills under unanimous consent. McConnell objected to each, so we’re stuck in further limbo.

Extending unemployment benefits should be a no-brainer when the percentage of unemployed Americans who have been out of work for more than six months is higher “than at any time since the government began keeping track in 1948.” Without the “doc fix,” medical providers’ reimbursements for Medicare patients stand to drop about 20 percent. FMAP stands for Federal Medical Assistance Percentage funding, relating to federal government reimbursements for part of each state’s Medicaid spending. The 2009 stimulus bill temporarily raised FMAP payments for states during the recession, with larger increases going to states with higher unemployment rates. Failing to extend this provision will put state budgets under further strain for the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years.

Republicans who blocked this bill claim we should not be adding to the federal deficit. A spokesman for GOP enabler Ben Nelson laid out his views here. Ezra Klein pointed out a few glaring problems with the analysis: the federal budget can’t start approaching balance with unemployment at 9 percent, polls show Americans are much more concerned about jobs than the deficit, and the current rate of economic recovery is “far, far too slow to really dent unemployment.” Meanwhile, the same senators who claim to oppose adding to the deficit also oppose rolling back tax cuts or tax loopholes for the wealthy in order to pay for extending unemployed benefits, state fiscal aid and tax credits.

I share John Aravosis’ view that it was a terrible mistake for President Barack Obama to talk tough about reducing the deficit earlier this year. As Aravosis writes,

[T]he President didn’t want to blame Bush and the GOP for the deficit, and he didn’t want to sufficiently defend the stimulus and explain to people that they had a choice between a Great Depression and a bigger deficit. […] If the public understood that the deficit was a) mostly caused by Bush, and b) not nearly as important as staving off a Depression and creating jobs, the GOP would be facing far more pressure not to launch these filibusters at all.

Perhaps no jobs bill passed this week would alter the economy enough to affect the November elections, but if we accept current unemployment levels and don’t pass additional fiscal aid to the states, the economy may still be very weak leading up to the 2012 election.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. From where I’m sitting, the case for Harkin’s filibuster reform proposal has never looked stronger.

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Iowans split on party lines as Congress extends unemployment benefits

The Senate approved another short-term extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 59 to 39 (roll call). The bill also extends COBRA benefits (related to keeping your health insurance after leaving your job) and delays a planned cut in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. (Click here for the text of the bill. Iowa’s senators split, with Tom Harkin voting yes and Chuck Grassley voting no, as did all but three Republican senators.

The House of Representatives quickly passed the bill as amended by the Senate. The bill had more bipartisan support in the House, with 49 Republicans joining 240 Democrats (roll call). However, Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) voted with the majority of the GOP caucus against the extension. I guess they don’t think the thousands of long-term unemployed in their districts need the extra help. King has previously spoken out against extending jobless benefits, which in his view are becoming a “hammock” instead of a safety net. Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) all voted for the bill. After the jump I’ve posted a statement from Loebsack’s office about this legislation.

President Barack Obama signed the bill last night, but Congress will revisit this issue soon, because the new law extends unemployment benefits only until June 2 and other measures through the end of May.

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Senate to extend unemployment benefits, but Grassley votes no (again)

The U.S. Senate defeated a Republican attempt to filibuster another month-long extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 60 to 34. Four Republicans voted with all of the Democrats present on the cloture motion, but Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley supported the filibuster, as did most of his fellow Republicans (roll call here). Senator Tom Harkin was absent but would have voted to overcome the filibuster.

Republicans claim they simply want the unemployment benefits to be “paid for” (though they never objected when supplemental spending for the war in Iraq, or tax cuts for the wealthy, added to the deficit). Senator Chuck Schumer of New York countered,

“Unemployment extensions have always been considered emergency spending, and there’s a reason for that. […] Unemployment insurance is a form of stimulus, but offsetting the extension of this program would negate the stimulative impact. It would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Governor Chet Culver had written to the entire Iowa delegation in Congress urging them to pass the benefits extension. Unlike Grassley, our governor understands how important these benefits are as economic stimulus:

The nonpartisan Iowa Fiscal Partnership released a study earlier this year showing the economic impacts of stimulus spending for unemployment benefits. Analysts found that direct spending for unemployment insurance included in the federal stimulus, along with ripple effects from that spending, produced $501.7 million increased economic activity and $112.1 million in income in 2009, creating or saving 3,727 jobs.

For the current year, the researchers also found direct and indirect benefits but in lower amounts, $314.6 million activity, $68.6 million income and 2,258 jobs.

So extending unemployment benefits doesn’t just help the jobless and their families, it helps businesses in virtually every community. The bad news is that the bill the Senate is poised to pass this week is not retroactive, meaning that unemployed Americans whose benefits expired on April 5 won’t get back the money they would have received this month had the Senate passed this bill before the Easter recess. It was a big mistake for Democrats to go home without taking care of this business in March.

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Unemployment benefits will run out for many today

Although the March jobs report was encouraging, the unemployment rate and the number of long-term unemployed are still at historically high levels. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits for about 200,000 Americans will run out soon because Congress adjourned for its Easter recess before resolving an dispute over extending those and other benefits. The Hill reports:

The interruption in benefits will last two weeks at a minimum, according to Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since lawmakers return from spring break on April 12.

As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.

Senate Republicans said the $9.3 billion, 30-day extension preferred by Democrats should be paid for, while Democrats said the bill’s cost didn’t need to be offset because the program was “emergency spending.”

Under the jobless benefits program that ends Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren’t readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit checks.

I love how Republicans who approved every blank check for war in Iraq and every tax cut for the top 1 percent now demand that unemployment benefits be “paid for.” I don’t expect them to hold up action on unemployment benefits forever, but even if Democrats are able to apply extensions retroactively later this month, a lot of families will experience real hardship in the meantime. Democrats should not have adjourned for Easter before dealing with this issue. I hope they pass a bill to extend the benefits until the end of the year, so these battles won’t recur every month.

In an April 2 statement regarding the latest jobs report, Senator Tom Harkin outlined additional steps needed to help people looking for work:

“First, Congress must overcome the obstructionism that is holding up an extension of unemployment insurance.  This critical safety net expires Monday and will leave nearly 38,000 Americans and 1,200 Iowans without benefits they need while they look for work.  In addition, we must take immediate action to prevent job losses among our nation’s teachers – to protect the quality of education – and we need to pass job creating legislation.  When Congress returns, I intend to move immediately on those efforts.”

UPDATE: Mike Lillis has more on benefits expiring and next steps in the Senate.

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