WASHINGTON -- On the morning of an important and uncertain vote to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives spent a few minutes chatting with two Democrats from the Congressional Black Caucus about their bill to help the long-term unemployed.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) strolled out of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)'s office Thursday talking to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Cantor declined to comment on the meeting before parting ways with the two Democrats.
"Speaker Boehner encouraged us to work with the House Ways and Means Committee to move this bill forward, and while we will certainly do so, we maintain that these long term unemployed workers deserve a floor vote now," Lee said in a statement after the meeting. "Frankly, where there is a will there is a way, and we hope that the Republican leadership will show some serious will to move this vital effort forward."
"We'll have to see what they do, but they clearly understand the desperate situation that people are in," Scott said.
Earlier this year, Lee and Scott introduced a bill to give the long-term jobless an additional 14 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits. (Currently, federal and state jobless programs combined provide up to 99 weeks of benefits in some states.) The bill went nowhere, as it would cost roughly $16 billion and the new Republican majority has no appetite for new spending.
But after Lee and Scott said they'd be open to looking for budget cuts to offset the cost of the unemployment benefits, Boehner and Cantor agreed to meet with them. Lee said they didn't talk about cuts during the meeting, however.
"We didn't talk about that because we still maintain it's an emergency," she told HuffPost. "They understood this very well. There was no conflict about this being an emergency."
Boehner's office declined to comment on the meeting.
Most Democrats insist federally-funded extended unemployment benefits be given an "emergency" designation, exempting them from "pay as you go" budget rules. The benefits serve a two-fold purpose: to provide a cushion for layoff victims and to stimulate the economy, since the unemployed tend to spend their benefits quickly on necessities like food and shelter. Some economists say offsetting the cost of the benefits counteracts some of that stimulative impact.
Some four million people will exhaust their unemployment benefits this year, according to a White House estimate. Yet the Lee-Scott bill is not likely to become law anytime soon, as deficit reduction has become Washington's top priority. No Democratic leaders have suggested they would support "paying for" extra benefits with budget cuts, and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus suggested in a meeting with President Obama that the bill would be too costly.
Nevertheless, Lee and Scott pledged to plod on.
"We're going to strategize and work on this and figure it out, but we're still focused," Lee said. "We didn't leave the meeting saying there's nothing left to do. We have plenty to do to move this along, and that's what we're going to do."
The meeting had originally been scheduled for last Thursday, but Boehner had to cancel because he was summoned to the White House for last-minute negotiations on a budget deal that would avert a government shutdown. A vote on that deal will be held in both the House and Senate later on Thursday.
Here's video of Lee and Scott after the meeting: