WASHINGTON — By day, Senator Michael Bennet is a Colorado lawmaker who has sponsored a bipartisan bill to help the long-term unemployed while not adding to the federal debt. By night, he is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who seeks to defeat Republican candidates.
Bennet’s conflicting roles illustrate the difficulties the two parties have had seeking to reach an agreement on extending federal unemployment insurance to 1.3 million Americans. Federal benefits to those who have been jobless for more than 99 weeks expired Dec. 31.
On Tuesday, Bennet voted “aye” on a motion to limit debate on S. 1845, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act. His vote was consistent with the 53 other senators who caucus with the Democrats. With the additional support of six Republican senators, Democrats succeeded in moving the bill to final passage, which is scheduled for later this week.
After the vote Tuesday, Bennet’s office released a statement that said the underlying legislation would provide relief to hard-strapped Americans out of work.
“Without an extension of unemployment benefits, tens of thousands of Coloradans who lost their jobs through no fault of their won lose this important lifeline. Moving forward, we need to work together to create jobs that strengthen our economy while also ensuring that Colorado families are able to make their mortgage payments, buy groceries, and pay their bills as they continue to look for work,” Bennet said.
While Bennet’s statement echoed Democratic concerns about the need to help the long-term unemployed, it did not acknowledge Republican objections that extending federal jobless insurance for three months should be paid for with offsetting cuts from other federal programs.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) poked fun at Democratic arguments that extending unemployment insurance would only boost the economy. “If unemployment benefits create so much growth, why would we just do a three-month extension? Why not a three-year extension? … History has proven that just spending more money, even on unemployment benefits, is not the solution. It’s not the long-term serious solution to the problems we face as a country,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Although Portman voted to cut off debate Tuesday, he hinted he would oppose final passage of the legislation unless it contained spending offsets.
To show his commitment to helping the jobless, the Ohio Republican added that he and Bennet are the cosponsors of a job-training bill that seeks both to eliminate duplicative federal programs and require higher certification standards for job applicants. “We need to be sure that the people who are unemployed get the skills they need to be able to take advantage of those jobs, those opportunities,” Portman said Wednesday.
According to a summary of the legislation, Portman and Bennet’s bill would require the President to submit a plan to Congress within 12 months that reduces the number of federal agencies that handle job training. In addition, it would give state and local workforce agencies priority consideration for training programs.
The two senators introduced the bill in the Spring. After the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions approved it in July, Bennet hailed the legislation as a necessary measure for only workers but economic growth. “If we are going to remain competitive in the 21st century, our workers need to be prepared with the skills that employers need,” he said in a statement.
The differences between Bennet’s statement on the cloture motion Tuesday and the committee’s vote in July highlight the partisanship that has characterized the debate over extending federal jobless benefits so far.
Democrats noted that continuing the benefits to the long-term jobless would stimulate the economy. The unemployed would have extra cash in their pockets to spend as they wish and encourage them not to drop out of the workforce.
Republicans countered that continuing the benefits without spending offsets would increase the federal debt and subsidize some job seekers who turn down a respectable if lower-paying position.
A December report from the Congressional Budget Office provided evidence to both parties.
The study concluded that if the legislation were law, the gross domestic product would increase by 0.2 percent and employment by 0.2 million by the end of this year. At the same time, the report noted, the legislation would enlarge the federal debt by $25 billion over the next ten years.
Party leaders have not only seized on different conclusions from the CBO report but staked out different positions on a three-month extension of the benefits. According to media reports, President Obama has said no offsets should be included, while House Speaker John Boehner has said the lower chamber will not vote on a jobless-benefits bill unless offsets are included.
In a nascent attempt to broker a compromise over the standoff, Republicans and Democratic senators have proposed amendments. Adam Bozzi, the communications director for Bennet, said the Colorado Democrat is open to spending offsets. He has not specified which ones the senator would consider.
As for said the bipartisan training bill, Bozzi said “I don’t believe it is part of the negotiations at this point.”