WASHINGTON — House-Senate negotiations on extending jobless benefits and a two percentage point cut in the payroll tax remained stalled Thursday, despite a proposal in which Democrats urged a modest six-week cut in the maximum time unemployed workers can receive jobless benefits.
Democrats, however, rejected efforts by House conservatives to require beneficiaries to enroll in GED classes or permit states to require drug tests as conditions of getting unemployment.
The Democratic proposal would allow unemployed people to receive a maximum 93 weeks of benefits in states with the highest jobless rates, rather than the 99 weeks permitted now. Republicans want to cut 20 weeks from the maximum benefit, though as a practical matter, the benefit would drop to 59 weeks under their plan because falling unemployment rates mean enrollees would lose automatically 20 weeks under program eligibility rules.
There's still no progress on the central issue of finding budget cuts to finance a cut in Social Security payroll taxes. At the hearing earlier this week, Democrats came out against GOP plans to freeze federal workers' pay and require higher income seniors to pay higher Medicare premiums.
But Democrats have yet to come forward, publicly or privately, with an alternative roster of deficit cutting proposals to raise $160 billion or so in savings to pay for extending the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, as well as preventing a 27 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors required under an outdated funding formula.
"It's puzzling. Democrats offered no ideas on how to pay for all the new spending, rejected all of the job-ready reforms and barely changed the unemployment weeks to 93," said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, a GOP negotiator.
A two-month extension of the three provisions was enacted late last year and expires at the end of the month. Republicans say Democrats are slow-walking the negotiations to pick a fight that the GOP would probably lose. Unless the pace of the talks picks up considerably, it seems unlikely negotiators will meet the Feb. 29 deadline.
"The president and Senate Democrat leaders will not allow their (negotiators) to support a reasonable, bipartisan agreement on spending cuts," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Worse, they've refused to allow any alternatives at all except for job-killing, small business tax hikes that they know can't pass the Senate, much less pass the House."