Democrats line up fiscal measures beyond budget agreement

With a budget agreement seemingly on the horizon, Senate Democrats are preparing to turn their attention to several fiscal priorities that divide lawmakers along party lines: an extension of expanded unemployment benefits and an increase in the minimum wage.

While budget conference negotiators try to work our a deal to ease the sequester, senior Democrats such as Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois say their party’s top priority will be trying to persuade Republicans to support a one-year extension expanded unemployment benefits (S 1747) before the holiday recess.

“The extended benefits end at the end of the year. We would like to get it done before then,” Durbin said. Such legislation would keep 1.3 million workers who have been jobless for six months or more from being cut off.

A senior Democratic aide said a proposal to extend expanded jobless compensation could move on a fast track in coming days. “If it doesn’t move as part of a budget agreement, it could come to the floor as a stand-alone,” the aide said.

Republican leaders have spoken against an extension of the emergency benefits extension that was first enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio last week pointed to the falling unemployment rate as an argument against another extension, although Democrats say the figures for the long-term unemployed show a continuing problem at the heart of the labor market. Still Durbin and other Democrats are looking to woo support in both chambers for extending broader unemployment benefits, and are looking to GOP lawmakers from states with high unemployment rates such as Nevada, Michigan and Illinois.

Some House Republicans broke ranks to back a letter circulated on Monday by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., supporting an extension. According to GOP aides, the draft letter called for floor action on a “temporary extension of emergency unemployment insurance to protect an essential safeguard that has aided Americans who have endured through a weak economy.”

Unemployed workers in most states receive 26 weeks of state-financed aid. Under expanded benefits extended by the fiscal cliff agreement (PL 112-240), they can receive between 14 and 47 additional weeks from the federal government, depending on their state’s unemployment rate.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said Dec. 5 that further extensions would “lead to a greater federal deficit, which would eventually reduce the nation’s output in income.” Cantor called instead for Senate action on House-passed proposals to ease federal regulations, expand oil and gas drilling and allow completion of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Conservatives also claim the emergency measure enacted in 2008 (PL 110-252) should be curtailed to save money and prod jobless workers to find work.

Senate Democratic aides said party leaders would follow up with other measures aimed at helping working families in January, with or without a budget agreement. The emerging to-do list for January includes a proposal (S 1737) introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and backed by leadership to raise current hourly minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 in three steps over two years. Other items includes incentives for manufacturers, small businesses and job training programs.

Eric Schickler, a political scientist at the University of California, said Democrats were looking to move beyond budget talks and the fight over the implementation of the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, 111-152). Instead of pressing for big-ticket items such a tax rewrite or a broader deficit reduction deal, Democrats are trying to pivot to modest economic priorities with a series of stand-alone bills that would help them to score political points, with or without final action, he said.

“These are things they want to accomplish. Politically, it’s a no-lose proposition for them,” Schickler said. “If they fail, they can blame Republicans.”

For Democrats, however, the action on unemployment benefits marks the most pressing fiscal matter outside the budget negotiations.

On the minimum wage, Senate Republicans have been working on a possible GOP alternative to Harkin’s bill.

For example, many Republicans are backing a proposal by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to increase the work-week threshold for full-time workers covered by the employer health care coverage mandate from 30 hours per work to 40 hours per week. Supporters say the Collins proposal would help workers by increasing their work hours and gross pay.