Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
As Democrats and Republicans struggle to agree on which bills to pass in Congress' crowded lame-duck session, hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers may find themselves struggling just to make ends meet.
That's because Congress has not passed an extension for long-term unemployment benefits, the payments the federal government sends to laid-off workers who have exhausted the traditional 26 weeks of assistance administered by states. Although Congress traditionally approves federal long-term assistance during times of high unemployment, Senate Republicans have blocked several attempts throughout the year to extend benefits in an effort to prevent Democrats from paying for the benefits with deficit spending.
On Monday night, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced a bill to extend long-term benefits through the end of 2011 at a cost of $56 billion, which would not be offset by other spending cuts. Congress has extended unemployment benefits eight times
since the economic downturn began, with the last extension in July. The current unemployment rate is 9.6 percent.
The length of available benefits differs by state, but is usually based on the unemployment rate, with people in the hardest-hit areas eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits. The extension now being proposed by Democrats would apply to people out of work more than 26 weeks, but fewer than 99. If Congress fails to act, all federal benefits extensions will expire Tuesday, leaving 800,000 Americans without assistance by next week and nearly 2 million without benefits by January.
On Sunday, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, suggested that Democrats would try to wrap an extension of unemployment benefits into any discussion of extending the expiring Bush tax cuts. "We should not be worrying about the discomfort of the wealthy, but the fact that there are many people struggling to survive everyday now because they have no job and no means to keep their family together in very difficult times," Durbin said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But Durbin's new Senate colleague, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) indicated Monday that Republicans have not changed their minds in wanting to see the benefits paid for before letting them get through the Senate. "You could extend it if you found a way to pay for it," Kirk told Fox News. "And I voted for that in the past but these proposals to extend unemployment insurance by just adding it to the deficit are misguided."
A Senate aide with knowledge of the negotiations told Politics Daily that congressional leaders are working to negotiate an agreement now and could have a proposal ready for consideration later this week.