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How GOP made its unemployment benefits plan palatable for conservatives

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Greg Lindstrom/The Muskegon Chronicle/AP Photo

(Read caption) A protester listens to speakers outside Republican Congressman Bill Huizenga's Muskegon, Mich. office during a rally on Thursday calling to extend unemployment insurance benefits, which are set to expire on Dec. 31.

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A new House GOP plan, released Friday, extends long-term jobless benefits, now set to expire on Jan. 4, 2012, for one year, but also requires states administering the benefits to adopt a list of proposed federal standards to “permanently reform” the unemployment insurance system.

Unemployment insurance is still a controversial theme for conservatives, who often see an extension of benefits as encouraging the unemployed to stay out of the workforce longer.

But the depth and persistence of the current downturn is driving GOP lawmakers to support the extension of the long-term benefits, albeit while reducing the maximum period of eligibility from the current 99 weeks to 59 in a bid to get workers back to work. The reduction in eligibility would be in two steps beginning in 2013. Most state benefits end after 26 weeks, after which unemployed workers must apply for the federal extended benefits.

This two-step process is a “common-sense level that is in line with past recessions and economic downturns, extending current benefits,” according to details of the plan released by Speaker John Boehner’s office.

It’s also recognition that American taxpayers “cannot subsidize benefits for an unprecedented, unending period of time,” the statement adds.

“Now, these temporary extensions have become permanent,” says freshmen Rep. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma, who told GOP leaders he could vote for extending unemployment benefits only if the program was reformed. “We often hear from [employers] back home that they’ve got manufacturing jobs, but that [unemployed workers] say that’s pretty close to what I get on unemployment.”

In a nod to such conservatives, the proposed bill strengthens requirements that all recipients search for work as a condition of eligibility. And, while making an exception for older workers, the GOP proposal also requires that those who have not finished high school must be enrolled in a GED program, as an alternative to demonstrating high-school level skills.

Recipients must also participate in training programs to help them get back to work. “We are doing a disservice to people by constantly extending unemployment insurance without requiring training or volunteer service,” Representative Lankford says. “With two years without work and nothing on the resume, it’s very difficult to be hired.”

The measure also gives states new flexibility to experiment with reforms at the local level.

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The bill explicitly allows states to test applicants for drug use as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits, “in order to improve prospects for future employment.” The move overturns an Obama administration rule that bars such testing.

On the Senate side, some conservatives are also calling for barring millionaires from access to unemployment funds.

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