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Republicans Are Making the Long-Term Unemployed as Desperate as Possible

Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

House Republicans scored a big victory in the past few weeks: They killed the Senate deal on unemployment insurance, blocking much-needed relief for more than a million Americans. But it's how they killed it, and their reasons for doing so, that are particularly infuriating.

In March, a group of Senate Republicans, along with the entire Democratic caucus, passed a five-month retroactive extension of federal unemployment benefits. The legislation included spending offsets, although a significant portion of them was accomplished through an accounting gimmick. The deal gave hope to the more than 2 million long-term unemployed Americans—those who have been out of work more than six months—who lost their benefits in December.

But House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican colleagues stood in the way. They ran through a range of excuses for blocking the legislation: First, unemployment benefits were a disincentive to work. Never mind that the academic evidence said otherwise. The long-term unemployed have not suddenly begun accepting jobs now that they've lost their benefits, but that has not led the GOP to rethink its position.

Then, Republicans argued that the bill needed a spending offset. Democrats obliged and included one in the deal. Not that Republicans genuinely care about the deficit. They are likely to pass a collection of business tax cuts in the upcoming weeks that would increase the deficit by nearly $400 billion. That’s more than 40 times the $9.7 billion cost of the Senate UI deal, and the Senate deal even includes a partial offset.

Boehner followed up those two weak excuses by saying the five-month retroactive extension was impossible to implement. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s assurances that the states would make it work didn’t change the speaker’s mind. Boehner had no desire to fix any design problems in the Senate deal anyways.

Finally, Boehner demanded that any agreement include a jobs creation measure, even though the Congressional Budget Office has found that extending unemployment insurance (UI) would create jobs. In addition, it does not follow that an extension of unemployment insurance must include a jobs measure. Either Boehner wants to extend UI or he doesn’t. Congress can pass jobs measures separately.

But all those excuses proved persuasive to House Republicans who have blocked the agreement. That’s a problem, because the Senate UI bill offers the long-term unemployed five months of benefits retroactive to December 28. At this point, it would just be a lump sum payment since those five months have already passed. That would undoubtedly help the long-term unemployed, but it would not provide ongoing relief. Instead of holding out hope that Boehner miraculously changes his mind, senators Dean Heller and Jack Reed are working on a new bill that would renew unemployment benefits going forward, but would likely not include a retroactive extension.

“That's hard to do at this point. It will probably be prospective," Heller said. "I'm guessing that we just go forward at this point. Five months of [retroactive] UI at this point, is a big, big bite of the apple. So that's not guaranteed, but I'm telling you that we realize that we are in a bind right now trying to make it retroactive.”

Given the intense opposition to extending unemployment insurance among House Republicans, it’s safe to say that renewing UI is just about dead. At best, it’s on life support.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman and the Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien show, bad luck is to blame for these million-plus Americans’ extended bout of joblessness. They lost their jobs after the financial crisis and couldn’t find employment during the meager recovery. As part of the long-term unemployed, they are systematically passed over by employers who would rather hire someone from the ranks of the short-term unemployed. Early evidence even shows that an improving economy won’t lead employers to hire these workers. They might become permanently unemployed.

In the meantime, as these workers try to hold on to their spot in the labor force, Republicans are making them as desperate as possible.