Sen. Jack Reed needs 60 votes this week in the U.S. Senate to open debate on restoring emergency unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans.
“We’re on track for a vote either Monday or Tuesday,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “It will give me a cloture vote.”
The extended, federal unemployment benefits — which kicked in for people after their state benefits ended — expired on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million Americans. Extended benefits were created by Congress in June 2008 during the Bush administration and have been renewed a number of times, as unemployed workers have struggled to find jobs since the Great Recession began in 2007.
Reed is seeking a three-month extension of those federal benefits with legislation that requires multiple steps to become law.
The first step is the cloture vote. The procedural vote would allow the Senate to consider the issue without sending it through committee hearings. If Reed gets the 60 votes and the Senate agrees to vote on the Unemployment Extension Act, it requires just 51 votes to pass.
Then the House of Representatives must tackle the issue and approve any extension before it would become law.
“Next week is the first tangible sign,” Reed said, that benefits could be restored to unemployed Americans. “If it carries, then we’ll try to move quickly to a final vote. If that carries, then all the attention focuses on the House. It happens in the Senate first.”
Reed argues that the benefits provide an economic stimulus because recipients spend the money on necessities such as gas, groceries and housing costs, pumping money right back into a still fragile economy.
He points to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office that the country will lose 200,000 jobs if unemployment benefits aren’t extended. With fewer jobless people spending their benefits, Reed says, fewer employees in the workforce will be needed.
The prospects for the legislation are uncertain in the House, where opponents argue the national economy is improving and emergency benefits are no longer needed.
The cost of extending the benefits to Americans for the first quarter of 2014 is estimated at $6.5 billion, according to Reed. Extending the benefits for the full year could cost between $24 billion and $25 billion, he has said. President Obama supports the extension. Opponents want supporters to find ways to pay for those costs.
Those opponents include Republican Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky. In an early December interview on Fox News, he said unemployment benefits shouldn’t be extended beyond 26 weeks, the amount most states pay, because they do a “disservice” to the unemployed, causing people “to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
Paul did not reply on Friday to a request from The Providence Journal for an interview.
Reed and supporters of the Senate legislation — which has attracted 21 co-sponsors — have stepped up their efforts to garner support for the extension, Reed said on Friday.
Reed declined to say how close he might be to 60 votes.
“I prefer to keep working. I don’t speculate,” he said. “I’m going to keep working until they close the vote.”
On two occasions in December, Reed had sought to extend the benefits for a full year but did not succeed.
Reed told The Journal that concerns were raised in December about extending the benefits too quickly and not allowing the issue to be vetted by committees in the Senate and House. Now, he’s seeking just a three-month extension so the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee can then consider broader issues about whether to revamp the program. Reed expects to push for a full-year extension after the process goes through committee, he said.
“Let’s help people who have been just sort of thrown off the cliff,” Reed said Friday. “Let’s get them back on their feet. Then, we have three months if the committee wants to deliberate on a range of issues.”
If Reed fails this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., can change his vote to no to preserve his right to bring up the vote again at a later date, according to Reed spokesman Chip Unruh.
The last time the federal unemployment benefits program was seriously reviewed was two years ago, Reed said. At that point, states were given latitude to try new ways to help people find jobs.
Those who are eligible for the extended federal benefits are the long-term unemployed — people who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits, which last 26 weeks in most states, and are actively continuing their job search.
They’re people like Ellen Donlevy, 52, of Warwick, who has been out of work nearly a year after her last job, at Cox Communications, was eliminated when the company moved her department to Arizona and Virginia. Despite more than 30 years in customer service and retail jobs, Donlevy hasn’t found a new job.
On Friday, Donlevy shared some good news with The Journal.
She has two interviews lined up for Monday — one with Alex and Ani, the lifestyle and jewelry company in Cranston, where two employees read in The Journal about Donlevy’s situation and reached out to her. The other interview is with Sam’s Club, Donlevy said, which called her Thursday after she had filled out an application a couple of days before Christmas.
After working for Cox for 16 years, the idea of an interview is nerve-wracking, Donlevy said, but she’s glad to tackle two in one day.
“I’m excited, and I’m confident,” she said. “I’m going just with high hopes — like I said, I need a job. I need to work. And I need to get a job because my van’s a 2003 and it’s not going to survive much longer.”
In Rhode Island, the average weekly benefit was $354 in 2013, higher than the national average of $310, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The highest average benefit paid weekly was in Massachusetts, at $490, and the lowest weekly amount among states was in Mississippi, at $193.
The federal benefits that were available through the end of 2013 added as many as 47 more weeks of assistance to people living in the states hardest hit by the Great Recession.
Here in Rhode Island, the long-term unemployed were eligible for 73 weeks of benefits, down from the 99 weeks that were once available to those here. The state’s 9.0-percent unemployment rate is virtually tied with Nevada as the worst rate in the nation.
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