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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

If Congress doesn't act in the next few weeks, more than a million people will lose unemployment benefits at the end of December. That's because a program of extended benefits begun during the recession is set to expire. The move comes with the unemployment rate stuck since August around 7.3 percent. And as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, the debate over renewal is now about more than the program itself. It's about the role of government.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The goal of the emergency benefits is to help those who are unemployed longer than six months. That's when state benefits run out and the federal program steps in. All told, today, the long-term unemployed can get as much as a year and a half of help while they search for work.

REPRESENTATIVE SANDER LEVIN: All right. We're all set. Thank you for coming.

KEITH: Sander Levin is a Democratic congressman from Michigan, and he recently held a press conference with a bunch of other congressional Democrats.

LEVIN: This is our determined effort to move the U.I. issue from the back burner to the front burner.

KEITH: U.I. is shorthand for unemployment insurance. And without congressional action, the federal program will expire at the end of December. Then the most anyone could get would be six months of unemployment benefits. In some states, it would be even less.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCDERMOTT: To say to people, at Christmastime, when you look in your Christmas sock, you're going to find a lump of coal from the Congress, that's wrong.

KEITH: Jim McDermott is a Democratic congressman from Washington state.

MCDERMOTT: And then we're going to go home and have a great celebration, have a wonderful time and leave an awful lot of people standing outside in the cold. This has to be done.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: I think it's going to be a pretty tough sell.

KEITH: Tom Cole is a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. He says there simply isn't an appetite for renewing this program again, five years after it started as a temporary emergency measure at the height of the recession.

COLE: They've been extended multiple times. We're well beyond the normal boundaries. We're supposedly in the third or fourth year of the recovery, so I think it's going to be very difficult to get that extension.

KEITH: Advocates estimate continuing the program for another year would cost about $25 billion. But for Republican Congressman Rob Woodall from Georgia, it may be less an argument about dollars and deficits and more about policy.

REPRESENTATIVE BOB WOODALL: If the desire is to change the way we deal with unemployment in this country permanently, we need to have that debate. But what we did was never intended to be permanent. It was intended to be a very temporary solution to a very temporary crisis.

KEITH: But for about 4 million people who count themselves among the long-term unemployed, the crisis drags on, says Judy Conti, an advocate with the National Employment Law Project.

JUDY CONTI: I would be lying if I said that people in Congress aren't somewhat fatigued by having to keep doing this. But at the same time, the long-term unemployed are certainly fatigued from having to keep searching for jobs in a bad economy. So it's not time yet to remove the federal safety net for the unemployed.

KEITH: One of the long-term unemployed is Linda Sandefur, who lives in the hard-hit state of Michigan.

LINDA SANDEFUR: I have a master's degree, a bachelor's degree, 20 years of work experience. This is like my third or fourth go-around on unemployment. And for me, the American dream is dead.

KEITH: Sandefur says that if her unemployment benefits are cut off, she won't be able to pay the mortgage on the house she shares with her mother. The irony is that Sandefur has spent a big part of her career helping other people find jobs.

SANDEFUR: But even having that knowledge hasn't made it any easier. So... (Chuckling)

KEITH: Her last temporary gig ended in June. And she's been applying for just about anything, no matter how low the pay or experience required. Still, the search continues.

SANDEFUR: Earlier today, I did find a couple of things that sounded a little closer to me. So I've got to do some follow-up with them and hopefully be able to convince them that I'm the person they're looking for.

KEITH: But every time she follows up on a job, she says they tell her they've gotten more than 100 other applications.

Democrats say they hope a benefits extension can be added to must-pass legislation before the end of the year. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans will take a look at any plan Democrats come up with but, quote, "We think it would be better for them to focus on helping get our economy moving again so more of the unemployed can find jobs."

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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