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Aid for long-term jobless may require trade-off

Sen. Mark Kirk

Sen. Mark Kirk

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Updated: February 9, 2014 6:34AM



WASHINGTON — Should a three-month extension of long-term unemployment benefits be “paid for,” that is, balanced by cuts on other spending, or be considered emergency spending that Congress has routinely approved in the past with no strings attached?

The answer to this election-year question is key to figuring out the fate of reviving the jobless benefit that expired at the end of the year, cutting off payments for 1.3 million nationally and 81,887 in Illinois.

Another 36,000 in Illinois who would have qualified for long-term help this month are out of luck.

The Democratic-controlled Senate on Tuesday advanced a three-month extension on a 60-37 roll call, with no votes to spare.

The Illinois senators split: Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin voted yes, Republican Mark Kirk was a no. The measure has to clear another procedural vote — it may be later this week — before final passage.

While Democrats found six Republicans to get to the minimum 60 votes, Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), Dan Coats (Indiana), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nevada), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (Ohio), there is always a danger that they could peel off if the measure is amended, which is always a possibility at this stage.

The Obama White House and Senate Democrats woke up Tuesday not sure if they could muster the minimum 60 votes needed in the Senate. Presuming the legislation, with a $6.4 billion price tag, eventually passes the Senate, it faces resistance from the GOP-run House.

President Barack Obama, at his first public event of 2014, continued to pressure Republicans. On Tuesday it was at a White House event where he was flanked by long-term jobless people who had been depending on those checks.

As Obama has in past speeches pushing for extending unemployment benefits, he made the moral and historic arguments. The White House and Democrats are also arguing that the unemployed quickly spend those checks, and that boosts the economy.

“It’s been done regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in the White House. It’s been done regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans controlled Congress,” Obama said.

In Illinois, the average weekly benefit payment is $320; the top payment for a family is $562. The 80,000-plus in Illinois getting the checks can potentially spend $25.6 million each week.

Republicans for various reasons have not been swayed. Some worry about Tea Party challenges. Some, like Kirk, are fiscal hawks.

Kirk, speaking to reporters on Monday, said that finding offsets to the costs of the jobless benefits would “really help” with the “Common Sense Caucus” of which he is a member. “If we had a $6 billion offset, I would vote for it,” Kirk said.

“I obviously got people in my state who could benefit,” Kirk said. “And the better way to go is to not add to the deficit in an irresponsible way, and take care of people.”

Kirk said he was looking for “real offsets,” not fiscal gimmicks.

Obama telephoned Kirk on Monday morning, “but they were not able to connect before the vote,” a Kirk spokesman said.

The position of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is the same today as a month ago, when, he recounted in a statement on Tuesday before the vote, “I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work.”

The Republicans are very capable of over-reaching on the offsets. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested the price of resurrecting the jobless benefits be lifting the Obamacare March 31 deadline for individuals to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. That was a ridiculous offer.

The situation is very fluid. The outlines of a deal started to emerge Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats may be open to cuts — if the GOP would agree to a one-year renewal of the benefits.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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