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Congress Stalled As 2 Million Lose Jobless Benefits

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Congress Stalled As 2 Million Lose Jobless Benefits


Congress Stalled As 2 Million Lose Jobless Benefits

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, sitting in for Guy Raz.

When members of Congress return from their Fourth of July break tomorrow, they'll find a big challenge waiting for them right where they left it. The issue is unemployment, specifically an extension of benefits for people who've lost their jobs. More than two million people have had those benefits cut off in the six-plus weeks since lawmakers began debating the bill.

In a few minutes, we'll talk to one jobless woman who is struggling to support her family without that money, and we'll look at how well unemployment benefits work as a stimulus for the economy.

First, though, to Capitol Hill and NPR's David Welna.

David, welcome to the show.

DAVID WELNA: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: So, David, this bill has been stalled since before Memorial Day. What's going on here? What's the problem?

WELNA: Well, Lynn, what's going on is a high-stakes election year standoff over deficits. Ever since the Eisenhower administration, Congress during times of high unemployment has approved jobless benefits that go beyond the usual half-year for up to two years of benefits.

And Democrats want to extend those now-expired benefits another six months. And at about $300 a week per beneficiary, that would cost around $34 billion. But all but two Senate Republicans now say they won't extend those expired benefits unless Congress cuts spending elsewhere. They say they don't want to add to the deficit.

Take a listen here to Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown on the Senate floor shortly before he voted to block consideration of an extension, which he said he wanted paid for now.

Senator SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Massachusetts): Taking into consideration not burdening future generations. Some of them are sitting right here. And it will allow us to provide for the needs of our citizens without putting more debt on the credit card. Once again, it's the checking account versus the credit card.

WELNA: Of course, Democrats point out that Brown and 11 other Republicans had no problem approving $33 billion worth of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that also wasn't paid for.

NEARY: Well, how do Democrats justify adding another $34 billion to what is already a trillion-dollar-plus deficit this year?

WELNA: They make a moral argument that with very few jobs to be had out there, the larger society should provide long-term unemployment benefits until the job situation gets better.

But they also make an economic argument. They say this is no time for austerity measures by cutting back on other spending. And as Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed out recently, the money that's paid out for unemployment benefits gets spent immediately, and that spurs $1.60 worth of economic activity for every dollar that's spent.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): These are monies that are creating jobs. We are doing something that is very American, very American, and that is helping people at a time of emergency.

NEARY: So with this political standoff, David, do people who've exhausted the usual 26 weeks of unemployment benefits have any hope of getting their safety net extended?

WELNA: Well, possibly. Democrats are just one vote short of the 60 they'd need to break the GOP filibuster. And they're pinning their hopes on getting that vote with the replacement for the late West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, and that person could be appointed in the next week or so. But until that happens, they're still a vote short.

NEARY: NPR's David Welna.

Thanks so much, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Lynn.

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