Jobless Benefits Extension Hits Snag in Senate

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON – A House-passed bill to give another 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to people from states where the jobless rate is at least 8.5 percent has bogged down in the Senate because of resistance from lawmakers whose states have lower unemployment and would be left out.

With hundreds of thousands having already lost their benefits or about to lose them in the coming weeks, Senate leaders were scrambling to come up with a compromise.

The original hope among Democratic leaders was to get quick approval of a proposal giving four extra weeks of benefits to the jobless in all 50 states and 17 weeks to workers in those 27 states where the unemployment rate is 8.5 percent or above.

But that drew opposition from lawmakers from the 23 states who wouldn’t qualify for the greater benefit.

“Unemployed workers face equally severe challenges no matter what state they live in, and they should be given the support they need,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in urging passage of legislation extending benefits in all 50 states.

Shaheen on Wednesday wrote a letter to Senate leaders, signed by 15 other Democrats and two independents who usually vote with Democrats, saying it was unfair that hundreds of thousands of workers in states with lower rates of unemployment would be excluded under the House plan.

Last week some two dozen other Democrats, led by Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and almost all from states with jobless rates of 8.5 percent or above, wrote a letter urging “swift extension of unemployment insurance benefits to help jobless workers in an extraordinarily weak labor market.”

The House bill passed last week by a 331-83 margin, with supporters arguing that the 8.5 percent threshold was needed to hold down costs and that the measure still covered a large majority of the long-term unemployed in danger of losing their benefits. They said the bill would protect about three-fourths of the 400,000 expected to exhaust benefits in September, and more than a million facing a cutoff of assistance by the end of the year.

A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that more than 80 percent of the projected 1.3 million people who will exhaust their benefits by the end of the year come from states where the jobless rate is at least 8.5 percent. In California, with a jobless rate of 11.9 percent, 154,000 could run out of benefits by the end of the year. In Florida, with a 10.7 percent rate, the number is 114,500.

The unemployment rate is now 9.7 percent and is expected to climb above 10 percent in the coming months despite signs that the worst of the recession is abating.

About one-third of the 15 million out-of-work Americans have been without a job for six months, a figure that outpaces recent recessions. There are currently about six people looking for every job available.

States offer 26 weeks of benefits, with the average payment about $300 a week. Over the past two years Congress has stepped in several times to extend the length of benefits or help out state unemployment funds. The stimulus act passed last February also added $25 of federal money to weekly benefits.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., sponsor of the House bill, said it would cost about $1.4 billion but does not add to the deficit because it raises money from a one-year extension of a federal unemployment tax, costing about $14 an employee per year.

The House bill covers the 27 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico with jobless rates of at least 8.5 percent. The 23 states that would not be included are Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.

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