Unemployment Extension Takes Backseat To Health Care

An extension of the soon-to-expire enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the stimulus bill took a backseat to health insurance reform on Tuesday.

On Monday, Democrats said they expected to ask for "unanimous consent" on Tuesday to move forward with a temporary extension of stimulus bill provisions that give laid-off workers up to 53 additional weeks of federally-funded unemployment benefits and also subsidized health insurance.

The request didn't happen on Tuesday, as Senate Democrats are instead moving forward with the reconciliation package sent from the House of Representatives to improve the health insurance reform measure signed into law by President Obama. It's not clear how long the process will take -- a procedural vote Tuesday marked the beginning of 20 hours of debate, which will end around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday if the Senate pulls an all-nighter. And when time is up, Republicans are expected to offer a flurry of amendments.

A Democratic aide told HuffPost that Dem leadership hoped to bring up the temporary extension via a request for unanimous consent but didn't know if it would happen this week.
A single senator has the power to object to unanimous consent, a power that Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) wielded to block a dozen requests for a stopgap extension in February because the measure would have added $10 billion to the deficit.

Republicans have not said whether they will object to such a request this week, but on Tuesday, Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) laid the groundwork to introduce a version of the same temporary extension -- only with an offset to prevent deficit spending. It's not clear where this offset comes from, but Democrats flatly rejected Bunning's earlier proposal to pay for the measure with unspent stimulus funds. That Republicans have their own version of the extension suggests they're not amenable to granting unanimous consent for the Democrats' version.

The Senate adjourns for two weeks on Friday. If it doesn't pass an extension before then, laid-off workers will lose eligibility for those extra "tiers" of federally funded "Emergency Unemployment Compensation" on April 6, along with subsidized COBRA health insurance, while the Senate is away. The National Flood Insurance program and boosted Medicaid funding will also lapse. The parties are basically playing a game of chicken with the deadline.

Bunning's antics caused state workforce agencies to send out scary letters telling recipients of unemployment benefits that they'd soon be cut off unless Congress acted. While they devoted resources to sending out the letters and winding down their programs, few if any agencies actually shut down EUC benefits after the deadline passed because they expected Congress to get its act together soon enough. Rich Hobbie, president of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, told HuffPost that unemployment offices could handle one week of uncertainty. But the upcoming Senate recess could leave states hanging for two weeks.

Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, said offsetting unemployment benefits like McConnell wants to do is just bad economics.

"Every economist from every side of the political spectrum will tell you that unemployment benefits are most stimulative when they are not offset," she said. "In the history of the unemployment program, we have never off set these programs."