Senate Extends Jobless Benefits, Homebuyer Credit

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The Senate has voted to extend unemployment insurance benefits for up to 20 weeks. The 24 billion dollar bill also expands an eight thousand dollar tax credit for first-time homebuyers. The legislation is expected to sail through the House.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Everybody in the Senate who vote yesterday voted to extend unemployment insurance benefits. They would go to the long-term unemployed. Unlike the House bill, which covered only the states with the highest jobless rates, the Senate wants to extend jobless benefits by 14 weeks nationwide. Benefits would run an extra 20 weeks in states where the unemployment rate is more than eight-and-a-half percent. And the Senate added a few more provisions to sweeten the deal.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: On average, unemployment benefits run around $300 a week. And with this move, benefits in the hardest hit states could stretch nearly two years. While this isn't the first time lawmakers have moved to extend emergency unemployment insurance, it was certainly one of the most frustrating, according to Senate Democrat Chris Dodd.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Seven thousand people a day were losing their unemployment insurance while we dithered up here, trying to decide whether or not we're going to actually have a vote on this matter. And, of course, today, you'd be hard pressed to get 98 votes in the Senate to agree that the sun came up this morning.

CORNISH: In the end, the bill did pass with those 98 votes. And although no Republicans voted against it, GOP lawmakers criticized Democrats for shutting down attempts to change the bill or attach other provisions.

Republicans pushed for amendments on everything from the community group ACORN to shutting down the bank bailout fund and immigration. Democrats argue the proposals had nothing to do with unemployment and served only to gum up the process.

But throughout the week, Republicans like Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska argued otherwise.

Representative MIKE JOHANNS (Republican, Nebraska): If we are really going to act like a Senate, if we are really going to give each member the ability to make their case, then what we have to do is stop this and bring these issues to a vote.

CORNISH: But Republicans helped sponsor two major additions to the bill: first, a measure that allows struggling small businesses to get a tax refund on profits from previous years. The second is a provision to extend and expand the first-time homebuyers tax incentive program that was set to end this month.

In addition to the $8,000 tax credit for new homebuyers, there will be a $6,500 tax credit for existing homeowners to buy something new. Senator Chris Dodd says the addition of so-called move-up homebuyers is key.

Sen. DODD: The move-up buyer is more inclined and capable of buying that furniture, maybe building a porch, putting a garage on, new roof on the house, whatever else, making improvements. And so the ripple effect economically in that move-up buyer is going to be a real benefit.

CORNISH: Senate lawmakers also increased the income limit for those eligible to $125,000 for individuals and $225,000 per family. The tax credits would be available through the spring home-buying season with the deadline of April 2010 for home buyers to enter a contract, and till June 2010 to close.

Georgia Republican and former realtor Johnny Isakson sponsored the amendment.

Representative JOHNNY ISAKSON (Republican, Georgia): The public needs to also know this is probably - this is the last extension. The benefit of tax credits are when they have a finality, when they have a sunset, when there's a sense of urgency to take advantage, now is the time. And with that type of momentum, the U.S. economy will come back because housing that led us into it will help to lead us out of it.

CORNISH: House leaders agree. They're set to adopt the legislation as is, in order to get the bill to the president's desk as soon as possible.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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