Congress moving toward debate on unemployment benefits

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

A three-month extension of emergency unemployment benefits is gaining momentum.

The Senate is scheduled to take a key procedural vote on that extension when it returns Jan. 6, and the plan has White House as well as some bipartisan support. The Republican-run House of Representatives has been more reluctant to go along.

Democrats plan to spend the holidays pushing hard to get an extension. While regular unemployment benefits will continue, emergency aid for 1.3 million long-term jobless will expire Dec. 28. In high-unemployment states, workers can get as many as 73 weeks of benefits.

The cutoff is “particularly poignant and nearly devastating as we go into the Christmas holidays,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters Monday.

Some Republicans agreed. Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., are chief sponsors of the three-month extension, which would be retroactive.

“Providing a safety net for those in need is one of the most important functions of the federal government,” Heller said.

His state and Reed’s have the greatest need for the extra help. Last month, Nevada and Rhode Island both had jobless rates of 9 percent, well above the national average of 7 percent. Some 4.1 million people have been out of work 26 or more weeks. A total of 10.9 million were unemployed last month.

Other Republicans have two concerns. One is that the economy is improving and unemployment rates are dropping.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found 18 states had lower rates last month than the national average, while eight had “measurably higher rates” and 24 had rates “not appreciably different from that of the nation.”

“The unemployment rate is coming down. These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along is we have to go back to normal at some point,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

The other Republican concern is the cost. For years, some Republicans have argued that the benefits should be offset by spending cuts. Others counter that traditionally such benefits were seen as emergencies and were not offset.

A one-year extension would cost about $25.2 billion, while three months would cost an estimated $6.5 billion, which would not currently be offset with cuts.

This dispute has erupted several times in recent years. The program was last extended about a year ago, as part of broader economic legislation.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio indicated he would be open to legislation this time.

But, he said before the House left earlier this month for the year, “I said that we would clearly consider it, as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that’ll help get our economy moving once again. I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards.”

The White House is firmly behind the three-month plan. “They should pass it, and I’ll sign it right away,” Obama told a news conference Friday. Pelosi also said she’d go along with three months.

Email:dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter:@lightmandavid

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