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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Millions of Americans have been getting by on unemployment checks that average $302.90 per week. Now, some people's checks are caught in a dispute in Congress.

MONTAGNE: Yesterday, the Senate failed to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed. People who've been out of work up to 99 weeks begin to lose the benefits just as the holiday season arrives.

INSKEEP: In fact, more than two million people would collect their final checks between now and New Year's Day unless Congress works out a deal. People are caught in a partisan fight over how to pay for unemployment benefits, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Congress decided, last July, to extend long-term unemployment insurance only until the end of November. November's now given way to December, and West Virginia Democratic Senator John D. Rockefeller IV laments that those benefits have run out just in time for the holiday season.

Senator JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER IV (Democrat, West Virginia): I feel terrible about it, particularly in West Virginia where everybody's fighting to survive all the time. And we have to do it. Why we haven't done it, I don't know.

WELNA: The House has already tried once in the current lame duck session to extend the jobless benefits and failed. In the Senate, the number two Democrat is Dick Durbin. He appeared stricken yesterday, when asked what that chamber planned to do about two million people losing their jobless benefits.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): There's just no current plan or schedule for extending these benefits, and I think this is just wrong.

WELNA: The expiring benefits were not even mentioned by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell when he spoke of the meeting he and other Congressional leaders had yesterday at the White House with President Obama.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): And I think the one thing that we clearly agreed on is that first, that we ought to resolve what the tax rates are going to be for the American people, beginning next year.

WELNA: Democrats say Republicans' insistence on extending expiring tax cuts for even the highest income levels shows a tone deafness to the plight of the unemployed. Again, number two Senate Democrat, Durbin.

Senator DURBIN: I don't know how we can sit down and talk about tax cuts for people who have jobs at the highest income categories and ignore the suffering and struggles of people who are unemployed through no fault of their own.

WELNA: Why not bring it up next on the Senate floor?

Senator DURBIN: Well, because we couldn't pass it. It needs to be part of a package to attract Republican votes. And we found - the last time around I think we had two Republican votes. That wouldn't be enough

WELNA: And the lift just got heavier for Senate Democrats with the swearing in this week of Illinois Republican Mark Kirk. Asked whether he'd support extending the jobless benefits, Kirk took a stance most Republicans take.

Senator MARK KIRK (Republican, Illinois): If it's paid for by cutting other items in the budget, I will be a yes vote. If it's added to further debts of the United States, no.

WELNA: Late in the day yesterday, Rhode Island Democrat, Jack Reed, defended his party's proposal to extend unemployment benefits for a year without cutting other items in the budget.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): We've always done it on an emergency basis, because it truly is an emergency. We haven't sought to offset it, because we've always determined that it was necessary to get the money to the people who could use it, who needed it desperately and we should do that again.

WELNA: Reed then proposed the Senate take up the extension. Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown objected, even as he expressed sympathy to onlookers in the Senate gallery for those losing their benefits.

Senator SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Massachusetts): So make no mistake, I agree that they need help. But I look at it, are we going to do it from the bank account or are we going to put it on the credit card? Bank account, credit card? How about you folks up there? Bank account, credit card? OK? I know what I want to do. I'll use the bank account.

WELNA: Democrats in turn rejected Brown's proposal to cut other government funding to pay for more jobless benefits. Both sides say the solution may be to attach those benefits to a deal extending the Bush era tax cuts.

David Welna, NPR news, the Capitol

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