After months of back and forth, this week the Senate finally finished its work on unemployment aid, passing a five month extension of emergency unemployment benefits on Monday. Six Republicans joined the full Democratic conference to support the deal, which allows for retroactive benefits from late December when benefits first expired, and continues through May 31. Leadership in the House remains unenthusiastic about bill, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) citing repeated concerns about the workability of the measure and calling for an agreement on Republican priorities such as a proposal to streamline job training programs. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), the chief GOP co-sponsor of the jobless aid measure, has been taking the lead in trying to work out deal to clear the way for House floor action on the Senate bill. Heller said he was trying to set up meetings with Speaker Boehner and other senior Republicans. The House did not take up the measure before adjourning for the two week Easter recess on Thursday, but conversations will likely continue behind the scenes to determine if a package that would be acceptable for the House leadership to take up can be crafted. Senate Democrats remain steadfast in their support for a clean extension of the aid.
Meanwhile, the House spent much of its attention this week on consideration of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) 2015 budget. The House voted 219-205 in favor of the blueprint on Thursday, which would balance the budget in a decade by cutting spending by roughly $5 trillion. Before that vote, the House rejected 163-261 an alternative offered by the Budget panel’s top Democrat, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, which relies largely on tax increases to achieve more modest deficit reduction. Democrats oppose the Ryan budget because of its cuts to domestic spending, its repeal of the health care overhaul and its tax cuts that they say would benefit the wealthy. Indeed, the Ryan plan makes drastic cuts to federal spending over the coming decade while overhauling numerous federal programs including Medicaid, Social Security, and several welfare programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. Ryan’s proposal lacks the force of law and is sure to be ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) is not writing a budget.
Finally, despite a heavy push from top Democrats, this week the Senate failed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to address the national gender wage gap. Current estimates maintain that women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn based on a comparison of the annual earnings of women working full-time jobs over the course of a year and the earnings of men working the same amount of time. The Senate measure fell six votes short of the 60 necessary to clear a procedural hurdle on Wednesday. Had it passed, the bill would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against a worker who inquires about or discloses his or her wages or the wages of another employee in a complaint or investigation. It also would make employers liable to civil actions. Lastly, the bill would have required the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect pay information from employers. In keeping with the spirit of the Paycheck Fairness Act, President Obama signed two Executive Orders on pay equity this week. The first would prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their salaries with one another. The other is a presidential memorandum ordering new rules for contractors to file data with the federal government showing how they compensate employees, including by sex and race.
Both the House and Senate will be in recess for the coming two weeks. They will return to Washington and be in session on April 28th.