- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A partisan debate over the federal unemployment benefits program is threatening tenuous Capitol Hill negotiations on a deal to extend the expiring payroll-tax holiday.

A 20-member bipartisan congressional panel set up to hammer out a new payroll-tax-cut compromise Wednesday agreed that renewing benefits for the longtime jobless for the rest of 2012 should be part of the package. But Democrats oppose several proposed Republican reforms to the program, such as requiring those receiving benefits to submit to drug tests and to earn a General Educational Development (GED) certificate.

Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, said the nation’s new-high jobless rate is an emergency and that unemployed workers seeking federal help shouldn’t be burdened with extra requirements.

“Targeting high-unemployment states is unfair,” he said. “To create new barriers now, I think would be a very serious mistake.”

But Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, said that, with unemployment rates stuck above 8 percent for more than three years, “what we’re doing isn’t working.”

“Some common-sense reforms are in order,” Mr. Brady said.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said requiring older workers to secure a high school equivalency degree as a condition for unemployment benefits is irrational, unnecessary and unfair.

“The typical person [receiving unemployment benefits] has worked for 20 to 30 years, they’ve lost their job and a GED is not going to make a difference in them getting their jobs back,” he said. “It’s just not the age group where it makes the most sense to be targeting.”

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, countered that as job markets change and modernize, educational requirements are becoming increasingly important for workers of all ages. And states have the option of waving the GED requirement.

“Part of the problem is that as firms downsized, they have removed jobs that didn’t require skill,” he said. “The type of jobs that are going to be available more and more to people in the workplace are those that do require more skills.”

Another question is whether to shorten the eligibility period for extended unemployment benefits down from the current 99 weeks. A House GOP plan calls for shortening the jobless benefits eligibility period to 79 weeks.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said that shortening the 99-week period would be a mistake that could hurt the national economy.

“If we truncate the number of weeks, we might find ourselves in a situation where we’re still looking at 8 percent unemployment … and then people will be left without any support,” he said. “The logic really is to go big, not go small.”

Mr. Reed added that Congress shouldn’t be bound to offset the program’s costs, as some Republicans have proposed.

“We’re at a point now where history strongly suggests that we have to provide continuous benefits,” he said. “And I would argue that we have to do it under the emergency basis that we’ve always adopted.”

But Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican, took Democrats to task for not offering to find ways to pay for the program.

“That attitude has to change,” he said. “We have to start paying for what we’re doing out of Washington.”

The payroll-tax committee faces an end-of-the month deadline before current two-month extension of the payroll-tax cut expires for 160 million wage earners.

The main sticking point is how to pay for the 2-percentage-point cut in Social Security payroll taxes. The tax cut allows a worker earning $50,000 to keep about an extra $20 a week.

The payroll-tax cut initially was set up at the end of 2010 as a one-year deal. Lawmakers worked to extend the tax break for another year during the closing weeks of 2011 but couldn’t agree how to pay for it, instead agreeing on a two-month stopgap deal.

The panel is scheduled to meet again Thursday.

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