Lawmakers Resume Negotiations on Stimulus Bill
House and Senate negotiators met for two-and-a-half hours last night to discuss an economic stimulus bill, which would likely expand unemployment benefits and help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, while White House officials and congressional leaders "made one last push" to reach an agreement, the New York Times reports (Stevenson, New York Times, 12/13). Lawmakers met "late into the night" yesterday and reported the "most substantial progress to date" on an issue that "many observers had given up for dead" (Earle et al., CongressDaily/AM, 12/13). Several lawmakers said that "prospects were brightening" for a compromise (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/13). However, negotiators did not "appear to have moved much closer" to an agreement, CongressDaily reports (Earle/Koffler, CongressDaily, 12/12).
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill yesterday urged lawmakers to support a compromise proposal that President Bush offered Tuesday (New York Times, 12/13). The plan includes a $30 billion provision to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks and provide an "advanceable" 50% tax credit to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/13). The tax credit -- up to $294 a month for families -- would apply to both unemployed workers who qualify for COBRA and those who do not qualify for the program. COBRA, the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allows unemployed workers to retain health coverage under their former employers' insurance plans by paying 102% of the premiums (Kessler, Washington Post, 12/13). Senate Democrats had proposed a bill, which Republicans blocked last month, that would have provided $14.3 billion to extend benefits for unemployed workers by 13 weeks and $12.3 billion to help unemployed workers purchase health coverage through COBRA. The legislation would also have allowed states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for COBRA and provided $1.4 billion to boost the federal match to states for Medicaid (California Healthline, 11/15). Senate Democrats have said that they would accept a tax credit as a means to help the uninsured, but have sought "higher payments [of] up to 75% of premiums" for health insurance under COBRA.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said yesterday that Bush's offer on benefits and health insurance for unemployed workers, a "critical" issue for Democrats, "falls far short of what we need to get the job done" (Washington Post, 12/13). He added that the plan "is basically the House [stimulus] proposal," which Democrats oppose (CongressDaily, 12/12). The House in October passed a GOP-sponsored bill that would increase by $3 billion funding for the Social Services Block Grant program to allow states to provide health insurance to unemployed workers and their families (California Healthline, 10/29). Many Democrats also "remain deeply suspicious" that Bush's plan to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance represents the "groundwork for the administration's goal of health insurance tax credits for all workers" and would encourage insurance companies to offer "inadequate policies to match the premium limits" proposed under the plan. However, a senior administration official said that the plan represents the "fastest way to get assistance" to unemployed workers and would end in two years (Washington Post, 12/13). Bush has received some support for the proposal from moderate Senate Democrats (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/13). The White House said yesterday that a "majority of senators" supports Bush's plan, a situation that may increase "pressure" on Daschle to "call a vote or strike a compromise" on an economic stimulus bill (Smith/Entous, Reuters/Boston Globe, 12/13). House GOP leaders said they may vote before Christmas on Bush's plan, allowing Republicans to "blame Senate Democrats for the package's demise" and offer them "election year cover" (Murray/McKinnon, Wall Street Journal, 12/13). Such a move could "increase pressure" on Daschle to schedule a vote in the Senate, the Washington Times reports (Curl, Washington Times, 12/13).