Senate To Work On Extending Jobless Benefits

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After weeks of political infighting, the Senate voted Tuesday to take up a bill to extend unemployment benefits. House lawmakers passed similar legislation last month. Since then, 400,000 people had their benefits end. The Senate is scrambling to pass the provision this week before thousands more run out of benefits.


Congress is still moving to try to get some help to people who are unemployed. The jobless rate, of course, is still high, and that prompted the House to pass a bill last month extending unemployment benefits.

Since then, about 400,000 people have seen their benefits end, as infighting in the Senate has slowed down a similar bill. Last evening, the Senate voted to take up the measure, but some differences still remain, as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Partisan bickering stalled this bill for nearly a month. First, many Democrats argued that the House bill, aimed just at states with the highest unemployment rates, was too narrow. New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen was among those Democrats who pushed to broaden the provision.

Representative JEANNE SHAHEEN (Democrat, New Hampshire): Unemployment isn't a New England problem or a Montana problem or a Southern problem. It's a hardship that hits every community in every state, in every part of our country.

CORNISH: So the version moving to the Senate floor would provide an additional 14 weeks of unemployment benefits to all states. Where the jobless rate is more than eight-and-a-half percent, the extension would run 20 weeks. Lawmakers will pay for the $2.4 billion addition by extending the unemployment tax employers are already paying.

But in the last few weeks, Republicans have proposed other amendments to the bill, measures related to immigration or the bank bailout program or to ban funding to the controversial community group ACORN.

Majority Leader Harry Reid claims that this is what really slowed things down…

Representative HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; House Majority Leader): Republicans decided to make a political statement by demanding completely irrelevant amendments, amendments that have little, if anything, to do with unemployment or even the economy, generally, and they decided that the political statement was more important than helping their constituents afford to pay bills.

CORNISH: GOP lawmakers dismissed that argument as a partisan attack.

Representative JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): It's kind of hard to understand their position when they have 60 Democrats, they can vote for cloture. They can do anything they want to do. So I think it's a lot of complaining without much merit.

CORNISH: Texas Republican John Cornyn was among the 13 senators who voted against moving forward with debate on the unemployment extension bill. He says he might not support the final version, either, if GOP lawmakers are frozen out of the amendment process.

Rep. CORNYN: Well, what they want to do is they want to do everything on a partisan basis, and all they want to have a vote on is the unemployment benefits without having votes on first-time buyer tax credit and other things that are important to the economy.

CORNISH: But that first-time home buyers tax credit Cornyn mentioned is the one GOP pitch that seems to have a fighting chance. That amendment would extend a program giving new homebuyers an $8,000 tax credit if they buy a place by the end of next month.

Georgia Republican and former realtor Johnny Isakson sponsored the measure.

Representative JOHNNY ISAKSON (Republican, Georgia): Obviously, you've got a difficult economy that's based in housing, the collapse, this first-time homebuyers work and began to bring back sales. I think it's important to extend that.

CORNISH: Isakson want to stretch the program into 2010 and expand it beyond new homebuyers, to buyers across the board and buyers with higher incomes. Senate leaders are considering a more limited version that would run the credit program into the spring home buying season before scaling it down to a $2,000 credit by the end of next year.

But while they work out the details, some 7,000 people a day run out of unemployment support and many lawmakers say with or without the homebuyers credit, this bill must go forward.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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