Boehner digs in against jobless bill

Speaker of the House John Boehner pauses during a press conference on Capitol Hill, Mar. 26, 2014.
Speaker of the House John Boehner pauses during a press conference on Capitol Hill, Mar. 26, 2014.

When House Speaker John Boehner attacked the Senate's unemployment insurance bill last week, he called the plan "unworkable," pointing to criticisms from the very state officials responsible for putting the benefit extension into effect.

The Senate has since tweaked the bill to address one of the big problems raised by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA), which Boehner cited in his denunciation of the bipartisan compromise. That has left state officials "optimistic" that their concerns will be addressed, according to NASWA's executive director, Richard Hobbie. But Boehner isn't satisfied with the changes and remains resolutely opposed to the bill, which could doom the prospect of an unemployment insurance extension.

The Senate plan includes a new provision banning millionaires from receiving unemployment benefits—something that state unemployment offices aren't currently equipped to calculate. NASWA was concerned that the original bill wouldn't give state officials adequate funding to revamp its applications process. There's now a technical fix in the bill to make sure there wouldn't be any "administrative funding constraints," Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, one of bill's lead sponsors, said on the Senate floor yesterday. "It will make it administratively easier to implement."

Labor Secretary Tom Perez also wrote a letter vowing to work with state officials to ensure they had adequate technology and other resources to apply the benefits retroactively, which were other concerns that NASWA raised. The bill would restore federal unemployment benefits for five months, backdated to Dec. 28, when aid first expired for 1.7 million long-term unemployed Americans. Since then, more than 500,000 more unemployed workers have exhausted their state benefits, without any federal backstop. 

"The Department of Labor has consistently worked with state to implement these extensions in an effective, collaborative and prompt fashion, and will do so again," Perez said in his letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

NASWA says it's still waiting to see the details of Perez's plan to help states implement the extension. But Hobbie says he's encouraged by the administration's response, as well as the tweak made to the Senate bill. "We thought the letter from Secretary Perez was good, and it promised to work hard on resolving the issues that might impact states adversely," Hobbie told msnbc. "We’re optimistic that the Department of Labor will figure out a way to lessen the state concerns." 

Boehner, however, hasn't budged on the bill. His spokesman, Michael Steel, said NASWA's concerns about implementation haven't been allayed. "It’s clear the Secretary didn’t actually address their concerns – he simply promised to 'work hard' to do so," Steel wrote in an email.

And even if those issues were resolved, Boehner still has bigger underlying problems with the proposal. "The Speaker told the White House in early December that if they produce a proposal that is paid for and does something to create jobs, the House would consider it. The Senate bill does not meet that test," Steel added.

Boehner's continued opposition is worrying for the advocates of the unemployment extension, which is expected to come up on the Senate floor later this week. With five Republican Senators on board, the new Senate plan appears to have enough votes to squeak past a GOP filibuster. But unless Boehner budges, there isn't any real hope for final passage.