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November 28, 2014

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Reid maneuvers for longer extension of unemployment benefits

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. finishes a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, where he said that he was pleased that six Republicans voted with the Democratic majority to proceed with legislation to renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

For the last few weeks, the unemployment insurance debate has centered on a three-month extension of benefits.

But now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that’s too short to work – because the system that processes many states’ payments may not be able to administer the changeover in enough time.

“It’s unworkable now,” Reid told Nevada reporters today. “I’ll take three months if I can’t take anything else, but we’ll have to be desperate to do that.”

The problem, Reid outlined to reporters, is with outdated computer systems most states use to process the payments. States haven’t had enough money to update antiquated programs, and any changes to the claims process can take weeks for these technologies to process.

“This ‘huge spider web of subprograms’ is cumbersome and can make tasks such as reprogramming for EUC extensions and Disaster Unemployment Assistance into a months-long ordeal,” a November 2013 report from the National Employment Law Project determined.

If the extension is only three months, Reid reasoned, the changes would barely be up and running before it would be time to reprogram the whole system again – leading to more delays.

“That older system, it takes weeks and weeks for them to change stuff around,” Reid said. “There are new people coming on, new people coming off – it just won’t work; three months won’t work.”

Nonetheless, Reid, President Barack Obama, and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., who co-wrote the three-month extension that has been the centerpiece of this entire debate, all enthusiastically endorsed it in the last several weeks as the best way forward.

In the last few days of negotiations, Reid had begun to push again for a longer-term extension – especially if Republicans were going to insist that any extension be paid for with budget offsets elsewhere. A group of Republicans, including Heller, countered with an amendment offering a three-month extension paid for by making it impossible for benefits recipients to claim unemployment insurance and disability insurance concurrently.

But when negotiations broke down, the amendment didn’t get a vote. That same group of Republicans introduced the amendment today as a standalone bill.

Reid said he had spoken to all of the Republicans backing that legislation and was “hopeful we can get something done with them, but I’m not confident.”

He blames the Republicans not involved in the effort for trying to kill the emergency unemployment benefits program by dragging out the debate.

“I’m convinced that a vast majority of the Republicans don’t want to do this,” Reid said. “They are going to have to keep saying no because we’re going to keep pushing this.”

Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have charged Reid was intentionally being uncompromising to preserve unemployment – and his insistence that Republicans are in the wrong – as an election issue.

Reid forcefully dismissed the suggestion Thursday, calling it “asinine.”

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