WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is putting together a bill to extend unemployment insurance, but the measure is already facing skepticism from Senate Republicans and stern opposition from Republicans in the House.
Now, it appears, House Democrats aren’t entirely on board.
From leadership on down, House Democratic lawmakers said Friday that they had reservations with the policies being proposed by Reid and Senate Democrats to cover the cost of the 11-month unemployment insurance extension.
When asked if he was supportive of provisions in the Senate Democratic offer that would use cuts elsewhere to offset cost, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said no. In particular, the Hoyer said he was disturbed that the party would extend sequestration cuts to mandatory spending as a means of finding savings.
“I’m not happy with the sequester at all, as you know,” Hoyer said. “I’m a big opponent of the sequester. I think the sequester is a mindless way to get to fiscal discipline… The premise that the sequester is a policy on which we ought to fund things I think is not a good one, whether it is 2024 or 2014.”
Under the Reid proposal, approximately $17 billion would be raised for an unemployment insurance extension this year by prolonging sequestration’s 2 percent cut to Medicare into 2024. The same ploy was used to help pass a budget deal this past December with bipartisan support (the cuts were extended into 2022 and 2023). But Hoyer argued that to do so again made little policy sense.
“Frankly, if you adopt that logic, why don’t we extend it to 2054 and fund everything we want to do?” Hoyer said. “I just think the sequester is not a proper premise on which to base funding.”
Hoyer's Maryland colleague, House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, said he was fine with the continuation of sequestration, though he opened the door to replacing it with savings from a respective farm bill.
However, other Democrats shared Hoyer's skepticism. One House member, who spoke openly on condition of anonymity, said the party was completely upending its messaging by going down this route again.
“We have been saying the sequester is the worst thing in the world and now we want to extend it?” the lawmaker said.
Other House members wondered why the party was compromising at this point at all.
“I don’t think you just sit there and negotiate with yourself and capitulate,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
It’s both hard to speculate and also premature to predict whether House Democratic angst with the Senate Democrat’s unemployment extension bill will result in actual voting opposition. Reid’s legislation, after all, could still be changed (his staff said he would allow Republican amendments to be considered next week), and even then House Republicans don’t have to consider the same measure. They could pursue their own, or do nothing at all.
But if a bill is to eventually make it to the House floor, it will almost certainly have to pass with Democratic support (too many conservatives don’t support extending the program under any circumstance), making the criticisms from Hoyer and others relevant.
Senate Democratic leadership has rationalized the decision to extend sequestration cuts by arguing that by the time 2024 rolls around, lawmakers surely will have been able to find a way to replace them. And, indeed, House Ways and Means Ranking Member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) all but admitted that the sequester pay-for was a mirage.
It “probably” will be replaced down the road, he said, adding, “I don’t want to say that in public because then it makes it imaginary. But this was Paul Ryan’s proposal for two years [as part of the budget agreement].”
Though he downplayed the significance of the sequestration extension, Levin had concerns with other provisions in Reid's bill. Language prohibiting Social Security disability assistance recipients from simultaneously receiving unemployment insurance was overly punitive, he argued, though he added that the Reid version was much kinder than the Senate Republican one.
The bigger problem for Levin was that the Senate proposal would chop the size of the unemployment insurance benefits down by $8 billion. And though the cuts would be felt primarily by recipients in states with low unemployment rates, $8 billion, Levin said, “is not chump change."
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