WASHINGTON -- For the second year in a row, Congress must decide during the holiday season whether to renew federal jobless benefits for people out of work six months or longer. While Democrats have been making a huge fuss, with a press conference Wednesday featuring hundreds of unemployed workers, Republicans have been relatively quiet -- but that doesn't mean they're against reauthorizing the benefits.
Republican leaders in both Houses of Congress have expressed support for continuing the benefits, saying the holdup is just a matter of how the legislation is put together.
"We're going to be discussing between the House and Senate ways to deal with both continuation of the payroll tax reduction and unemployment insurance extension before the end of the year," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. "And in the end, it will have to be worked out in a joint negotiation between a Democratic Senate and a Republican House."
If the benefits are not reauthorized, 1.8 million jobless will stop receiving checks over the course of January, according to worker advocacy group the National Employment Law Project. The federal benefits kick in for laid off workers who use up to six months of state-funded compensation without finding work. Congress routinely provides extensions during recessions and hasn't dropped extended benefits with the national unemployment rate above 7.2 percent.
Yet the need to reauthorize benefits has been overshadowed by the looming expiration of a payroll tax cut put in place last December, which would result in a tax hike on every working American -- an average hike of $1,000 -- a scenario Republicans would like to avoid. And Congress also needs to pass a so-called "doc fix" by the end of the year to prevent a 27 percent cut in pay for doctors who see Medicare patients.
"Nobody is coming out with any definitive statements on [unemployment insurance]. Last year they were happy to," Judy Conti, a lobbyist for NELP, told HuffPost. "I think it’s indicative of the fact that on a bipartisan basis people understand that workers families and the economy need these programs to continue."
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The sticking point over renewing the benefits through next year will be their roughly $50 billion cost. Republicans typically insist that the aid must be "paid for," but that calculation may not apply if the benefits can be attached to something attractive like a tax cut. Republicans blocked renewed unemployment aid last year until President Obama agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years -- at a cost much greater than unemployment. Earlier this year President Obama pressed Congress to pass a jobs package that included many items Republicans favored -- for instance a "Bridge to Work" training program -- but so far congressional Democrats have not signaled support for those programs.
Many members of Congress expected the deficit reduction super committee to craft a deal that included the benefits, but the committee turned out to be less super than advertised.
"Any kind of grand deal that we've been after has eluded us," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday, referring to the failed broader talks on the budget and debt. "So let's try and work incrementally towards a conclusion this session that can benefit all Americans. Because we Republicans do care about people that out -- that are out of work. We don't want to raise taxes on anybody. We want to provide the help to the physicians and the providers in the health care arena in this country, and we want to make sure this country has a sound national defense policy."
Even Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who suggested during a standoff on jobless benefits last summer that unemployed people blow the money on drugs, sounded sympathetic to jobseekers on Wednesday.
"Nobody really has a real quick answer. We're studying it, looking at it. We're clearly going to have to do something -- nobody wants to see people suffer," Hatch told reporters outside the Senate floor on Tuesday. "There's a huge underemployment rate as you know, of 16, 18 percent, somewhere in that area. People don't even want to look for jobs anymore. There oughta be some incentives to find jobs, to get to work. It's easier said than done. I think there's a general consensus that we need to help people."