WASHINGTON — It's no coincidence that one of the few Republican senators pushing to renew emergency federal unemployment benefits represents Nevada — a state that is tied for the highest jobless rate in the country at 9 percent.
The federal program that was enacted at the start of the recession expired Dec. 28. It provides benefits for the long-term unemployed after their 26 weeks of state benefits run out.
As the Senate continued debate Wednesday on a bill that would extend the program for three months, the debate highlighted more than just deep ideological differences between the two parties. Democrats view the proposal as an emergency measure that can be financed with deficit spending; Republicans insist on pairing it with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
To some extent, the debate also illustrated how different parts of the country are faring economically after the Great Recession.
The national unemployment rate is about 7 percent, but some states' rates are significantly higher than that and some much lower. Nebraska and Iowa are among the lowest at 3.7 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively, and GOP lawmakers from both states acknowledged that those figures play a role in how they approach the debate.
While Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is concerned that the bill would not offset the benefits with budget cuts elsewhere, he said Iowa's relatively low unemployment rate is a factor.
“That figures in,” said Grassley, who voted this week against moving forward on the bill.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., talked about friends and neighbors who are suffering right now but also said she's more focused on boosting job-training opportunities than simply extending the benefits. She voted against moving forward on the bill, as did her fellow Nebraska Republican, Sen. Mike Johanns.
“When I ran for this office, I said I was going to bring Nebraska common sense to Washington,” Fischer said. “That wasn't just a sound bite. There's a reason that we're doing well in Nebraska and one of those reasons — I think one of the main ones — is we don't borrow money, we don't survive on debt.”
Resistance to renewing the program could prove even stronger on the House side of the Capitol.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said he is waiting to see what legislation —if any — makes it out of the Senate but noted that all on Capitol Hill are influenced by what they're hearing back home. He said he has not heard an overwhelming outcry in Nebraska to renew the emergency benefits.
“Certainly, the fact that we have a low unemployment rate and the major issue I'm hearing with employers is lack of people to hire — you know, that's meaningful,” Terry said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry represents the Lincoln metropolitan area, where the unemployment rate is less than 3 percent. The Republican congressman said there is no question that many Americans are suffering as they struggle to find work, but he also pointed to employers in his district who have a large number of positions they can't fill. Some of those employers have resorted to trying to lure skilled workers from Michigan.
“We've got a disconnect between the openings and the difficult situations that some people are experiencing,” Fortenberry said.
Of course, there are basic philosophical differences at work, too.
Those voting against moving forward on an extension this week included both Republican senators from Mississippi, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 8.3 percent.
And Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said his staunch opposition to renewing the long-term benefits had nothing to do with the unemployment rate back in Iowa.
Instead, he described the traditional 26 weeks of state benefits as a sufficient bridge for those who find themselves out of work. Going beyond that, he said, simply acts as a disincentive for people to go to work.
“If you're out there trying to hire people, it's hard to compete with an unemployment check,” King said.
Many Republicans have said they would like to see a renewal of the emergency benefits paired with more emphasis on training people for the kinds of jobs that are available.
But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a leading advocate for the renewal of the program, countered that suggestion by saying that job training is great but does not remove the need for the emergency benefits in a time of high unemployment.
“We should put more into job training and skills upgrading and our community colleges, especially, but that doesn't solve the problem of 'You've got to put food on the table today,' ” he said.
Harkin also said lawmakers should focus on Americans across the country and not simply look at the situation in their own states.
“You take an oath of office as a United States senator, not as a Nebraska senator or an Iowa senator,” Harkin said.