House Republicans Eye Unemployment Reforms

by Jonathan Strong

Following the unexpected win for the unemployment-insurance extension in the Senate yesterday, House Republicans convened for the first time in 2014, engaging in a spirited internal debate about how the party should proceed on the issue as Democrats press for political advantage on income inequality.

GOP lawmakers are brimming with ideas for how to reform unemployment insurance, but they are without a single, clear voice on how to proceed.

Speaker John Boehner privately told lawmakers he doubts whether the Senate bill, despite advancing yesterday, will pass the upper chamber, leading some to consider the issue dead. Other Republicans are interested in proposing changes that could boost employment much like welfare reform did in the 1990s.

There is, however, one point of unanimity. The bill, as is, will not pass the House.

“When the White House chief of staff called me one week before the recess and first brought this issue up of extending unemployment benefits, I made clear that we would consider extending emergency unemployment benefits if it was paid for and if there were provisions that we could agree to that would get our economy moving again and put the American people back to work,” Boehner told reporters after the conference meeting.

“I just don’t see it happening,” says Representative Devin Nunes, a Boehner confidant. “The unemployment is back to where it was. What good does it do to extend the program? We don’t have the money for it, the economy is improving, so I just don’t see it happening.”

“If there was a tradeoff for mandatory reforms [maybe]. Look how much negotiating it took for us to get the budget agreement. That was a year’s worth of negotiating. Here you have something that was a program that’s been just re-upped a few times, that was supposed to be temporary. It’s temporary! It’s over! That’s it! What leverage is there to re-up this? I don’t get it. I just think it’s politics,” he adds.

Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a leading moderate voice, tells National Review Online he would like to see the inclusion of approval of the Keystone Pipeline in any deal that extends unemployment.

Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio says he is reviewing proposals to create incentives for the unemployed to engage in new training and a kind of bonus system for people receiving unemployment insurance who do find work.

Representative Steve Southerland of Florida led a press conference touting GOP proposals to address poverty to mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” “While this war may have been launched with the best of intentions, it’s clear we are now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our history,” Southerland said.

Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma pitched a proposal to add transparency to the labyrinth of current federal programs providing assistance to poorer Americans. “We must evaluate all of our programs and what we’re doing to help those in poverty — not based on how many are enrolled, but how many graduate,” Lankford said.

Lankford, the House Policy Committee chairman, is sponsoring legislation that would establish a “master list” of such programs and require each to disclose certain types of information like how much money it spends each year, how many people it serves, and how many federal employees work on it.

Democrats, including President Obama, are hoping to catch Republicans off guard with a message on income equality that can help the administration distract from the failures of Obamacare. But the debate in the House shows there is a lively discussion about how to address poverty on the right.  

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