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While those freshmen prepare for the next Congress, the current Congress has some unfinished business. In this lame-duck session, lawmakers face tight deadlines. The Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year, and the money that funds the government runs out on December 3rd. Before that, at the end of November, unemployment benefits run out.

As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, that would affect millions of laid-off workers.

AUDIE CORNISH: If lawmakers don't extend the benefits that Congress last approved in July, millions of people will lose their unemployment checks over the next few months.

Here's President Obama the day after the midterm elections.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think it makes sense for us to extend unemployment insurance because there are still a lot of folks out there hurting. So there are some things that we can do right now that will help sustain the recovery and advance it.

CORNISH: The program funds jobless benefits beyond the 26 weeks that states normally provide. In states with the highest unemployment rates, workers are eligible for more than a year and a half of benefits.

Lawmakers have voted more than half a dozen times in the last two years to extend the program. And that's a problem, says Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Mr. MICHAEL TANNER (Senior Fellow, Cato Institute): There may also be a certain amount unemployment benefit fatigue that we have had this debate so long. We have had extensions of the benefits before, and I think there becomes some point at which lawmakers begin to say: When is enough, enough?

CORNISH: This past summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell led many Republicans in calling for spending offsets to pay for the bill.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): If Democrats were as concerned about passing this bill as they say they are, they'd find a way to do it without adding to the debt. After all, there's no law that says we're required to exacerbate one crisis in an effort to alleviate another.

CORNISH: The debate over unemployment benefits is now sandwiched between an empowered GOP mandating spending cuts and the president's bipartisan fiscal commission laying out the need for, among other things, massive cuts to bring down the deficit.

Mr. CHAD STONE (Chief Economist, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): It's going to be a situation that crystallizes the debate over what do you need to do to stimulate the economy in the short run and does that interfere with deficit reduction in the long run, and it doesn't.

CORNISH: That's Chad Stone, chief economist at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Stone says the debate over offsets will be long and highly politicized, and it could leave up to two million Americans empty-handed during the holiday-spending season. He says that doesn't make economic sense.

Mr. STONE: An offset is either a tax increase or a spending cut somewhere else in the budget that takes purchasing power out of the economy at the same time that the unemployment insurance benefits are putting purchasing power into the economy. And so you're on the one hand stepping on the accelerator to try to get the economy moving, and on the other hand, you're stepping on the brake to try and stop it.

CORNISH: Perennial hand-wringing over extending the existing program hasn't left much room for discussion on how to make it more efficient or less costly, says conservative economist Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute.

Hassett says the emergency benefits program should be reformed.

Mr. KEVIN HASSETT (Economist, American Enterprise Institute): As the risk of panic subsides, then we have to think more about what we can do to put ourselves on a long-run sustainable growth path rather than a shot of adrenaline.

CORNISH: Advocates for the unemployed say their goal is to convince lawmakers to pass a yearlong extension now, while Democrats are still in charge.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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