POLITICS
03/11/2014 06:00 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

Democrats Will Try Long-Shot Maneuver To Bring Back Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON -- Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives will try to restore long-term unemployment insurance to 2 million workers using a rare parliamentary maneuver on Wednesday.

The procedural move, called a discharge petition, requires a majority of House members to sign on in support of discharging a bill from committee that has otherwise stalled. Democrats were unable to hit the threshold needed -- 218 votes -- for another recent discharge petition on minimum wage legislation, so it's unlikely they'll succeed with unemployment benefits.

But Democrats hope merely raising the issue puts pressure on Republicans.

"If my colleagues want to vote against the extension, I respect their right to disagree; but failing to even allow a vote goes against the very progress that families and our constituents demand," said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who will file the petition. "Partisan politics must not be allowed to get in the way of doing the right thing for our middle class families. That’s why I'll be filing a measure to end the gridlock and force a vote on extending unemployment insurance."

Discharge petitions are one of the few tools at the minority party's disposal to push the majority party to hold votes on items it doesn't want to advance. The majority party in the House, currently the Republicans, generally won't bring up a bill for a vote unless it has support from the majority of the chamber, or often the majority of the party's own members. That means that bills like the unemployment insurance measure from Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), which is currently going nowhere in the House Ways and Means Committee, don't make it to the floor to be either voted through or voted down.

Levin's legislation would reauthorize federal unemployment insurance until the end of the year. The benefits, which kick in for workers who use up six months of state compensation, lapsed at the end of December for 1.3 million workers. Since then another 700,000 workers have exhausted their state benefits and been left hanging. Under the legislation they would all receive lump-sum payments for benefits they've missed so far.

Nearly 4 million workers have been jobless six months or longer, according to the Labor Department. The average jobless spell in February had lasted about nine months.

House Republican leaders have said they're not very interested in an unemployment insurance bill if it doesn't come with any GOP-friendly provisions. And they're happy to let the Democratic-controlled Senate make the first move, something the Senate has been unable to do.

"The Speaker has said repeatedly that if Senate Democrats can produce an extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits that is not only paid-for, but also does something to actually create jobs, he will be happy to discuss it," Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an email last week.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated reauthorizing the unemployment insurance would add 200,000 jobs to the economy, but Republicans have ignored or dismissed the CBO's findings on unemployment benefits and jobs.

In addition to the discharge petition Democrats filed last month to raise the minimum wage, they are expected to soon make the same move on comprehensive immigration reform.

Discharge petitions rarely get the 218 votes needed to force a vote on the House floor. Since 1931, when the maneuver took its current form, 563 discharge petitions have been filed but only 47 received 218 signatures, according to the Congressional Research Service. Over the past 30 years, seven petitions have made it to the signature threshold, and all of them received floor votes.

But even if they don't expect to get 218 signatures, proponents argue that circulating discharge petitions can up the pressure. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said as much last week when talking about plans to file a discharge petition for a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

"We'll never get the 218 on the [immigration] discharge petition ... because the Republicans will generally not sign," she said in an interview on SiriusXM. "But the fact that it is there and the outside mobilization is saying, 'All we want is a vote' -- either sign the petition, which enables us to get a vote, or urge the speaker to give us a vote."

Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.

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