President Obama’s outreach to some GOP senators appears to have them willing to at least talk about extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.
These are tough times for the Republican Party on the issue. Jobs remain hard to find, and if Republicans vote against extending benefits, as conservative supporters demand, they will appear cruel and cold-hearted.
Tuesday’s vote to take up the legislation to grant an additional three months of benefits was a small victory. The measure still faces major challenges. Only six Republican senators sided with Democrats. Obama’s effort in calling at least three key Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio, probably helped.
But Republicans, especially in the House, may want too much in return for future yes votes. In addition to offsetting budget cuts, Republicans may want such unrelated items as exemptions from the president’s health care law and approval for the building of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Congress allowed the long-term unemployment benefits to expire at the end of last year, affecting 1.3 million people nationwide. Another 800,000 unemployed nationwide are expected to lose their benefits in the first few months of this year.
Many states offer unemployment insurance to laid-off workers for a maximum of 26 weeks, but during the last recession Congress passed an “emergency” program that provided four tiers of extended benefits for a maximum of 99 weeks. The program has been shrinking as the economy recovers.
Although the economy is slowly improving, it remains in crisis mode for millions of Americans forced to rely on unemployment benefits to survive. The time to reduce benefits is after the economy recovers, not at some arbitrary date selected years ago.
It is surprising that the measure to extend long-term unemployment benefits has made it this far. It has a long way to go and many hills to climb, but at least it hasn’t been rejected out of hand.