WASHINGTON -- Democrats in the U.S. Senate this week firmly rejected GOP proposals to drug-test the jobless, but they signaled a new willingness to compromise on cutting weeks of unemployment benefits.
Members of both parties in the House and Senate are negotiating a legislative package that would extend unemployment insurance and a host of other domestic spending provisions, chief among them a 2 percent Social Security payroll tax cut. These benefits expire at the end of February under a two-month extension deal reached late last year.
The Senate Democrats' proposal, outlined in a one-page document (PDF), would cut six weeks of unemployment compensation, limiting the maximum benefits to 93 weeks. But the offer does not reflect the fact that Democrats already gave ground on the duration of benefits.
Under the most recent reauthorization of federal unemployment insurance, Congress set in motion a gradual 20-week reduction that is already taking effect in Maine and Michigan. Democrats admitted to HuffPost in December that they had to give up the 20 weeks in order to win Republican support for the two-month deal. The Obama administration was the first to support phasing out 20 weeks of benefits.
Republicans, for their part, want to cut 40 weeks of benefits and have not publicly surrendered on any of their demands to reform the unemployment insurance system. Under a Republican bill that passed the House of Representatives but not the Senate last year, states would be allowed to drug-test the jobless and deny benefits to laid-off workers who don't have high school diplomas. The Senate Democrats' offer rejects those proposals.
Republicans are not impressed. "Given that even the president has moved to 79 weeks and the fact that Democrats are still rejecting GED and drug-screening reforms, this offer appears to be more of a political stunt than it is a serious proposal," a Republican aide said.
The offer does not say how Democrats would achieve 93 weeks of benefits. It's not as simple as adjusting a dial in the Department of Labor.
There are two federal programs that kick in for workers who use up the standard 26 weeks of state benefits without finding jobs. The first, called Emergency Unemployment Compensation, provides 53 weeks of aid broken into four tiers, each of a different duration. In 32 states, workers who exhaust EUC can then receive Extended Benefits, which provides checks for up to 20 weeks.
The Extended Benefits program only triggers on in states where the jobless rate is high and rising compared with a corresponding period in the previous three years. But jobless rates have been slowly falling from those of three years ago. Unless Congress changes the look-back period to encompass four years, Extended Benefits will trigger off in every state over the course of 2012.
If Congress were to adopt a four-year look-back, most state legislatures would still need to change state law to conform with the new federal law. Many Republican-controlled statehouses would probably not want to bother -- at least not without winning further concessions from Democrats on unemployment or other policies.
It could be that Democrats are willing to drop Extended Benefits altogether and stretch the tiers of Emergency Unemployment Compensation to keep the jobless receiving benefits for 93 weeks. The proposal is vague, and spokesmen for Senate and House Democrats declined to elaborate.