GOP: Drug Tests for Unemployment Applicants

Tossing a bone to conservative members, GOP proposes possible drug tests for unemployment benefits.

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A GOP proposal to extend extra unemployment benefits for another year would include significant changes to the national jobless benefits program, including a provision allowing states to give applicants drug tests. The proposal—part of a larger bill which also would extend the payroll tax cut, speed up an administration decision on the controversial Keystone Pipeline, and settle a number of year-end issues—is part of a GOP push to shore up the support of its more conservative members before it faces off against the White House over whether, and how, to extend unemployment benefits.

Unless Congress acts, unemployed workers will only be eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits beginning in 2012, rather than the potential 99 weeks of benefits which was authorized as the recession began. It's one of many issues which are coming to a head as the year draws to a close. Congress will also have to decide whether or not to extend a payroll tax cut through 2012, as well as several other expiring tax credits and adjustments to Medicare.

[The case for ending the payroll tax cut.]

The Republicans' newly unveiled proposal to complete most of the unfinished budget business would require that applicants for unemployment insurance be enrolled in a GED program if they haven't graduated from high school, and would also beef up requirements that applicants be actively looking for work. Those worth more than $1 million would be ineligible for benefits under the proposal. It would also gradually roll back how long workers could claim extended benefits, from 99 weeks to 59 weeks.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the changes would "modernize the unemployment system and boost job creation across this country."

[Debate Club: Should Congress Extend Federal Unemployment Benefits?]

Using drug tests to screen out applicants for unemployment benefits has been a rallying call for conservatives across the country, especially with newly elected Republican governors such as Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida. Along with the proposal for the Keystone Pipeline, the provisions are expected to shore up support among the more conservative members of the House, who have also said they wouldn't extend unemployment benefits without significant overhauls to the program.

As the debate over payroll taxes and unemployment benefits heats up, Republicans have been searching for a unified voice while Democrats have been on the attack. As Republicans have splintered on the issue of payroll taxes in the Senate, the House has been waiting to find a bill that the party can rally around.

Democrats have blasted the approach as a "Christmas Tree"—a crucial bill with too many unrelated, partisan items hanging off of it.

"With the middle class facing a huge tax increase on the first of January, now is not the time to be debating unrelated measures like an oil pipeline," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after the GOP bill was unveiled.

[See cartoons about the federal budget and deficit.]

The House will vote on its version of the bill early next week. Congress will try to resolve the issue before heading home for the winter break.

aparker@usnews.com

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC