U.S. senator, labor push to restore jobless benefits for 1.7 million

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 4, 2014 12:28pm EST

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WASHINGTON Feb 4 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Jack Reed, with the support of the largest labor group in the nation, said on Tuesday he hopes to get a vote as early as this week on a new bill to restore expired federal jobless benefits for 1.7 million Americans.

The bill does not appear to have the 60 votes required to clear an anticipated procedural roadblock by Republicans in the 100-member Senate, according to Senate aides.

Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and other backers of the measure, including the AFL-CIO labor federation, are pushing to muster support.

"We are working on it," Reed said in a conference call with reporters.

Senate Republicans last month blocked an earlier version of a bill co-sponsored by Reid and Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada that would have extended jobless benefits for three months.

But, unlike the previous bill, the $6.4 billion cost of providing jobless benefits for an additional three months would be fully paid for and would not increase the record federal debt load, Reed said.

Reed explained that the costs would be offset by "pension smoothing," which, he explained, would allow companies to use historical data in determining pension contributions.

That, in turn, would increase revenues and result in additional taxes to pay for the jobless benefits.

"It is technique that has been used before by both Republicans and Democrats in terms of paying for proposals," Reed said. "I don't think that is going to cause any controversy."

A senior Senate Republican aide, however, said there could be resistance, noting that "pension smoothing" has been "a gimmick in the past, and it is still a gimmick."

The bill would renew benefits, retroactive to Dec. 28, when they began ending for the long-term unemployed - those generally out of work for six months or more. It would also give Congress time to explore ways to pay for restoring benefits for a full year.

Initially, some 1.3 million unemployed people lost their benefits, but that number grew in the past month to 1.7 million.

Although U.S. unemployment has fallen to 6.7 percent from 10 percent in October 2009, economists say some of the decline is because many have given up searching for work.

President Barack Obama, top Democrats and their supporters say restoring the benefits are key to ensuring that those unemployed workers have a basic safety net in place while continuing to look for jobs.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined Reed on the conference call and said it "was shameful" that Congress allowed the benefits to end and that his federation would keep pushing until they were restored. "We are not going to quit," he said.

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