Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2017

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Debate in D.C. shifts to how to pay for unemployment benefit extension

Shared concern for the long-term unemployed in their home state made Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller allies Tuesday, as they joined forces to push a short-term extension of funding for lapsed unemployment benefits past its first procedural hurdle.

For the bill to make it over the finish line, Heller and Reid will have to broker and sell a much more politically tricky compromise to their colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

Heller delivered his signature and those of five other Republican senators — more than Democrats were expecting — to put the Senate over the hurdle of a filibuster threat that could have stopped a three-month extension of unemployment benefits dead in its tracks. But most of the Republicans who came onboard said they want the bill fleshed out with “pay-for” measures to offset the cost of those benefit checks before they’d consider helping the bill over its next legislative hurdle.

“I voted to proceed to a debate on the issue; I am willing to support this short-term extension if it’s paid for,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who voted for Tuesday’s measure but is pushing to offset it — and repeal a cost-of-living adjustment for recent veterans — by preventing immigrants in the country illegally from claiming a child tax credit.

“It’s really going to be up to the majority leader as to whether he allows us to debate this, to vote, to offer amendments and get it to the point where I can support it,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who said he was also working on an amendment to pay for unemployment checks, but would not detail it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he is open to looking at cost offsets if Republicans can devise something workable.

“I personally am not in favor of a pay-for on unemployment insurance. It’s an emergency,” Reid told reporters. “But if they have something … bring it to my caucus and we’ll take a look at it.”

Reid added that he would consider including cost offsets only if Republicans agree to extend benefits for at least a year.

So far, Reid and other Democrats don’t like Republicans’ counteroffers.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday suggested offsetting the cost of a three-month extension of benefits — estimated to be about $6.5 billion — by repealing the individual health care mandate for a year.

Democrats dismissed it out of hand as “obviously a non-starter.”

Heller agreed that McConnell’s proffer was an unlikely candidate and that the pay-fors discussion would have to focus on finding something “we can all agree on.”

“Probably the most rational (pay-for) … is something Obama had proposed in his budget: If you’re on unemployment insurance and you’re on disability insurance, you have to choose between one and the other,” Heller told the Sun. “If they allow amendments, that seems to be the discussion today that’s the most reasonable.”

The change, which Heller said would save from $5 billion to $6 billion, would make it impossible for unemployed workers to receive disability insurance and unemployment insurance simultaneously.

Heller said he had discussed the idea of that either-or choice with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, both of whom voted for Tuesday’s procedural measure to begin the debate on the unemployment bill.

But he hasn’t yet talked it over with Reid, and his office didn't respond directly to questions about it.

Heller said later Tuesday he wishes his party handled the vote differently, although he defended his colleagues' right to seek cost offsets.

“I wish every Republican would have voted yes on this,” Heller said. “If they have a problem going into the bill, if for any reason they won’t allow amendments, we can’t agree on pay-fors, whatever, at that point you cast your no vote … but we need to have this debate.”

He added that he’d vote for the final bill, pay-fors or not.

Some Democrats, including the bill's co-author, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., had been bracing for Tuesday's measure to fail, and when it passed, were careful not to criticize Republicans too forcefully for demanding pay-fors.

“Having secured a very positive bipartisan vote getting us on to the measure, we want to go forward in good faith and good spirit,” said Reed, who added he would “personally thank Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada — he stood up … and we’re here today in large part because of his efforts.”

Notably, the group of Republicans who joined Heller come from states that don’t have nearly the scale of a jobless crisis as does Nevada, where the November unemployment rate was 9 percent.

The November unemployment rate in their states ranged from 5.1 percent (New Hampshire) to 7.4 percent (Ohio). The national unemployment rate was 7 percent.

According to the Department of Labor, about 16,800 Nevadans lost their unemployment benefits when federal funding for the additional tiers of emergency benefits expired Dec. 28. Nationally, the number of workers who lost their benefits is estimated at 1.3 million.

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