Senate Set For Fight Over Jobless Benefit Extension

Janessa Rivera fills out a form for unemployment benefits i i

Janessa Rivera fills out a form for unemployment benefits at the California Employment Development Department office in Sacramento last October. When senators return next week, they'll take up a plan to extend a federal benefits program for the chronically unemployed. Rich Pedroncelli/AP file photo hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Pedroncelli/AP file photo
Janessa Rivera fills out a form for unemployment benefits

Janessa Rivera fills out a form for unemployment benefits at the California Employment Development Department office in Sacramento last October. When senators return next week, they'll take up a plan to extend a federal benefits program for the chronically unemployed.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP file photo

When senators return Monday from a two-week recess, they are expected to tackle the politically divisive question of whether to extend a deadline for unemployed Americans to apply for supplemental federal help.

Before the break, congressional Democrats and Republicans were bickering over how to pay for the program, which can extend assistance payments for months — more if the recipient lives in one of the hardest-hit states. And so lawmakers left town without acting on a proposal that would have allowed newly eligible Americans access to the pay and health care benefits.

The result: On Monday, the government stopped accepting applications for the assistance.

Some advocacy groups estimated that this week, about 200,000 people a day have exhausted their standard state unemployment benefits. These are people who would have been eligible to apply for the federal aid, had the program been extended.

Slow Recovery Outlook

In a speech Wednesday in Dallas, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested that the nation's 9.7 percent unemployment rate will shrink in coming months — but not quickly.

"My best guess is that economic growth, supported by the Federal Reserve's stimulative monetary policy, will be sufficient to slowly reduce the unemployment rate over the coming year."

He said that "some of the toughest problems are in the job market," and though the unemployment rate has "edged off its peak," it's still close to its highest levels since the 1980s.

Bernanke expressed particular concern for the long-term unemployed, whose skills may erode and longer-term income and prospects diminish.

Liz Halloran

Republicans such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who threatened to use a filibuster to block action on the extension measure, have accused Democrats of using the impasse as a public relations stunt.

Democrats have said much the same about their across-the-aisle colleagues.

Indeed, the issue of where to find the $10 billion needed to keep the federal program for the chronically unemployed going for new applicants has generated emotional rhetoric. Not all of it has been accurate.

Benefits Aren't Being Cut Off

First, let's clear up one common misconception: Benefits are not being "cut off" from those currently in the federal program, say officials at the U.S. Department of Labor. The specter of suspending benefits has been raised frequently, often to dramatic effect.

Even Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently characterized the deadline expiration as a "cutoff."

"As a result of this political gamesmanship," he said in a statement on the Senate floor in late March, "more than 370,000 unemployed Americans will be abruptly cut off from federal unemployment benefits."

Not so.

According to the Labor Department, people who are already receiving the extended federal benefits will continue to receive them for as long as they were deemed eligible.

"We are not halting the benefit," a Labor official said. "If you qualified for the federal program and have started receiving benefits, you will continue to do so."

The deadline expiration affects only jobless Americans who have just exhausted their state unemployment benefits and who became eligible for the supplemental federal program this past week.

It is worth noting that, in the past, Congress has retroactively extended coverage to those who missed the earlier deadline.

And Democratic leaders have expressed confidence that they'll be able to persuade at least one Republican to join the 59-member Democratic caucus to pass an extension. That would thwart a threat by Coburn to halt the measure with a filibuster.

In February, Coburn's fellow Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky attempted unsuccessfully to block a similar extension that kept the program going though the beginning of April.

Still, Outlook Remains Dire

In some ways, the political rhetoric surrounding the benefit extension has outrun reality. Still, no one is disputing the nation's continuing dire joblessness situation.

A Labor Department report released Thursday showed that first-time unemployment claims increased by 18,000 in the week that ended April 3. Economists had expected that claims would dip, as they have in four out of the past six weeks.

However, while the nation's four-week average of new claims increased to about 450,250, according to the Labor Department, that number is significantly less than the high mark of 651,000 of just over a year ago.

In a speech before the Dallas Regional Chamber on Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke cited chronic unemployment and the housing crisis as continuing concerns.

"More than 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer," he said, "nearly double the share a year ago."

Nobody argues about the need.

Republican Sen. Jon Kyl told Fox News that extending unemployment benefits wouldn't be a "job stimulator," but was necessary nonetheless, given the nation's 9.7 percent unemployment rate.

Meanwhile, millions of jobless Americans facing the end of their standard benefits no doubt will be closely watching what one economist called the Senate's "Kabuki dance" on the federal benefits and how to pay for them.

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