Long-Term Jobless Benefits Expected To Be Extended

Rolled into the payroll tax cut bill is an extension of unemployment insurance benefits — but with some reductions in the number of weeks allowed. Under the deal, jobless workers in most states would claim 63 weeks of benefits — unless they live in states with high unemployment.

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Lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill today that extends the payroll tax cut through the end of the year. In a Congress famous for pushing deals to the last minute, this one comes nearly two weeks before a deadline and appears to have bi-partisan support. It extends the average $20 a week tax holiday to 160 million Americans. And also extends benefits to those who don't have jobs.

NPR's Sonari Glinton has more.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: If the plan passes for those who have a job and have been getting a payroll tax cut, things will pretty much stay the same - they'll continue to get a payroll tax cut. The same thing for doctors who would have seen their Medicare reimbursement dramatically reduced - they'll get paid the same. What's different is for those approximately four million people who get unemployment insurance benefits.

House Republican Kevin Brady of Texas helped work out the compromise on jobless benefits. He's going help explain it. First, unemployment benefits are extended through the rest of the year.

REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN BRADY: But we gradually reduce them to about 63, weeks from 99 today, in most states.

GLINTON: If the state has what's considered high unemployment, laid off workers will keep their benefits for 73 weeks.

BRADY: We require job search from day one, which is important.

GLINTON: And here comes one of the big controversial items.

BRADY: We allow states to do drug testing, especially in those industries that require it.

GLINTON: So if the industry that you work in requires drug testing, you have to get tested. If you got let go for using drugs, you'd also have to take a test. Representative Brady says he sees the overall deal as good opportunity to change how people get unemployment benefits.

BRADY: We have basically a system from the 1930's we essentially still use today. Its whole goal is to send out an unemployment check. But we think the goal ought to be getting people back to work.

GLINTON: The plan also gives some states flexibility in how they use the money with the hope that they can design experimental programs that will help people find jobs. Maurice Ensellem is with the National Employment Law Project. He says he's not happy with all the changes. But he thinks the program is too important to let lapse.

MAURICE ENSELLEM: If it weren't for the unemployment benefits program and all these extensions, there's an excellent chance that we wouldn't have an economy recovery at this point.

GLINTON: Ensellem says he doesn't want to see barriers put in front of people who need jobless benefits. But he says, he doesn't think it's likely the majority of states will drug test applicants.

ENSELLEM: Most states we anticipate won't sign onto this program, partly because they also have to fund these drug tests, and unless there's a really good reason to drug test folks, which there really isn't, from the point of view of a lot of states, it's not going to make sense to put resources into this drug testing effort

GLINTON: Democrats have fought hard against many of the provisions that were just listed, and won some concessions. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi is encouraging Democrats to vote for the plan, because she says, it could've been worse.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: It does not have these strange, like, you have to have a high school diploma in order to get unemployment benefits.

GLINTON: When asked what she meant by strange, Leader Pelosi responded.

PELOSI: Did I use the word strange?

GLINTON: I think you did.

PELOSI: Well, whatever. 'Cause strange is probably a good all-purpose word around here.

GLINTON: Strange might also describe how quickly Congress resolved legislation so far ahead of deadline, though it still has to pass over the objections of members of both parties. Because a last minute snag, that wouldn't be so strange.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, the Capitol.

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