POLITICS
01/03/2014 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Democrats Basically Out Of Options For Passing Unemployment Insurance

WASHINGTON -- If the number of conference calls held on a bill reflected its chances of passage, an extension of unemployment benefits would have become law weeks ago.

Unfortunately for the 1.3 million Americans who saw their benefits expire on Dec. 28, the constant phone calls haven't facilitated any legislative success.

Two more calls were hosted on Friday, one by congressional Democrats and the other by the Obama administration. The former promoted a new report showing that $400 million has been drained from state economies this week alone by the lapse in unemployment insurance.

Democrats have used the state-by-state breakdowns inside the report to generate follow up stories by local news outlets. And on the call, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees unemployment insurance, said that one of the main components of the Democrats' strategy has been to pressure Republicans through the press.

"Our office has been distributing materials on long-term unemployment and the end of unemployment insurance to a vast array of media throughout this country," Levin said. "And we've been tracking ... the vast array of responses both in articles and in editorials, which have been overwhelmingly supportive of extension."

Nearly one week after the compensation lapsed, it's increasingly apparent that public pressure is one of the only tools available to Democrats. In an interview with The Huffington Post on Friday morning, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), acknowledged that it would be a steep hurdle to get a bill restoring the benefits through the House at this point. He accused Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) of not negotiating in good faith, noting that he and Levin had met Boehner's demand and presented a deficit-neutral bill, but the speaker never discussed the bill's merits with them.

And so, Van Hollen conceded, the best hope for passage would be for the Senate to move legislation first, increasing pressure on the lower chamber to act.

"This is going to be the first order of business in the Senate, which I'm glad to see," Van Hollen said. "The question, of course, will be whether it passes the Senate. If it does, it will provide some momentum going to the House, and I think it will ratchet up the pressure on Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans to do something."

Senate Democrats are currently expected to vote on a proposal to restore unemployment benefits as soon as Monday. The measure has a Republican co-sponsor -- Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) -- but Senate leadership aides in the chamber are uncertain whether it will have enough votes for passage. One problem for Republicans is that the cost of measure, which would extend unemployment benefits for three months, is not offset with cuts elsewhere. But it's still unclear if even a deficit-neutral bill would have a chance in the House.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second most powerful Democrat in the House, said Republican leaders in his chamber had not indicated whether they'd support an extension of benefits even if it didn't add to the deficit.

"I have not heard any representation from the leadership yet that they would support unemployment insurance with an offset," Hoyer told reporters on the Friday conference call. "There really is no secret back pocket."

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Van Hollen had a few other ideas for sparking legislative movement, suggesting that Democrats hold up the farm bill unless it includes an extension of unemployment benefits, paid for by the bill's estimated $15 billion in savings. He also said Democrats would be open to modifying any unemployment insurance extension, either by changing the amount of benefits paid or including a firmer end date for the program, if it would encourage Republican support.

"Those are all issues that could be discussed if Republicans come to the table," he said. "I don’t think they have really come to the table for a discussion on this."

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