The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 17, 2014

GOP obstruction puts federal jobless benefits extension on life support in Congress

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI)—With 72,000 more unemployed workers losing their jobless benefits every week, organized labor and its civic, religious and congressional Democratic allies turned to public pressure to push resurrection of the benefits through a hostile GOP majority in the U.S. House.

That promise came from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and others in a press conference-cum-rally Jan. 8 on Capitol Hill, even as the Democratic-run Senate was still working on a filibuster-proof majority on a bill to extend unemployment benefits.

The legislation would aid 1.4 million – and counting – long-term jobless workers.  There are so many jobless that if they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, the line “would stretch from here to Lincoln, Nebraska,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Southfield). There were 44,889 jobless workers in Michigan who lost benefits at the first of the year.

Organized labor and the Democratic allies hoped to pass the jobless benefits extension after a GOP filibuster to kill it failed on Jan. 7. Democrats got the five Republican votes they needed in the Senate to continue debate on the bill (the vote was 60-37) but failed to clear the 60-vote veto-proof margin for a full vote on the measure in the Senate.

The benefits, retroactive to Dec. 28, would give the average jobless worker several hundred dollars per check, after their state benefits, (20 weeks in Michigan) expired.

“The job market is pretty cold and freezing out there” for the long-term unemployed, Trumka told the room packed with print and video reporters and jobless workers.  “Most hard-working Americans – bus drivers, teachers, construction workers, police officers – are one layoff or one downturn away from real economic disaster.”

The jobless have already suffered that disaster “and they want to work,” he declared.  “It’s up to us to make their hard times a little easier” in “a recession” caused by Wall Street greed “that goes on and on and on.”

The jobless workers are taking their stories to lawmakers both on Capitol Hill and at home, AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel said.  That includes 2,000 calls per day, constant e-mails, contacts by AFL-CIO state fed leaders, and visits to lawmakers’ district offices, he said.  Whether the ruling House GOP is listening is another matter.

In opening comments the day before on the House floor, the common Republican refrain featured pious pronouncements that they want to aid the jobless, but that the $6.4 billion cost of sending out the checks for three months must be paid for by killing the “individual mandate” of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the health care law or by budget cuts elsewhere.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rejected that scheme, along with another GOP plan to pay for jobless aid: Reducing tax credits to poor families for kids.

“They have talking points so they can sound compassionate,” Trumka said of the GOP.  “There’s nothing compassionate about denying unemployment benefits.”

The extension of benefits had a fair chance of passing the Senate this week, but in the GOP-run House, it faces an uphill battle.

“Five-and-a-half years of emergency, temporary extensions stacks up at some point and I hear and understand all the statements about it stimulating the economy and all those things. The challenge is we continue to borrow another $6.5 billion from the future,” said Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. “The impression that I get is times are tough now, so we’ll make it tougher on our kids to make it easier on us. I just think that’s a problem.”

Economic Policy Institute President Lawrence Mishel said “now is no time to cut back on support for long-term unemployed workers who lost their job through no fault of their own. The ratio of unemployed workers to job openings is 2.9-to-1, as high as it was at the height of the previous downturn in the early 2000s. This means that for nearly two out of every three job seekers, there simply are no jobs.”

Moreover, Mishel said, “these benefits play an important role in boosting a still-ailing economy. EPI research has shown that the labor market will lose 310,000 jobs in 2014 if they are not extended.”

President Obama has pledged to sign the benefits extension if it comes to his desk. “I’m glad that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are working together to extend this lifeline, I hope that their colleagues in the House will join them.”

(By PAI’s Mark Gruenberg and other reports).