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Jobless benefits to expire as Congress debates Bush tax cuts

WASHINGTON — Jobless benefits will run out for 2 million people during the holiday season unless they are renewed by a Congress that's focusing more attention on a quarrel over preserving tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year.

It's looking iffy at best whether Congress will renew jobless benefits averaging $310 per week nationwide that are claimed by almost 5 million people who have been out of work for more than six months.

An extension of jobless benefits enacted this summer expires Dec. 1, and on Thursday, a bill to extend them for three months failed in the House. Democrats brought the bill to the floor under fast-track rules that required a two-thirds vote to pass. Republicans opposed the legislation because they were denied a chance to attach spending cuts, so the measure fell despite winning a 258-154 majority.

If Congress doesn't take any emergency action when it returns Nov. 29, about 106,000 unemployed Floridians are expected to lose benefits.

Every week after that, according to the Florida Agency of Workforce Innovation, another 41,000 jobless will run out of benefits if they can't advance to their next level of extended payouts.

Currently, about 612,000 out of an estimated 1.1 million jobless Floridians have been receiving some level of unemployment aid: either the initial state benefit, the emergency federal benefit that follows or one of four tiers of extended federal benefits.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised to bring the measure back to the floor after Thanksgiving to try to enact an emergency measure to extend benefits at least through the holidays. But Senate Democrats don't have time; instead, they hope the jobless benefits issue gets addressed in year-end negotiations over taxes and other important legislation. The most recent effort to renew jobless benefits occupied weeks of the notoriously balky Senate's time and barely advanced with the required 60 votes.

Now, even if there were time, GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would appear to command the votes to block any benefits extension that is not paid for with cuts to other programs. Sen.-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois will soon join the chamber, replacing Democrat Roland Burris, which appears to now leave Democrats short of the votes to defeat a filibuster.

Still, the looming expiration of unemployment benefits could put Republicans on the defensive since they will expire just as debate peaks in the lame-duck session over whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts on individuals with income exceeding $200,000 or for couples making more than $250,000. The tax cuts expire Dec. 31, and Democrats oppose permanently extending the upper-bracket tax cuts, which would cost about $700 billion over 10 years.

The National Employment Law Project, a labor advocacy group is hoping Congress acts before benefits run out. "Sadly, Congress is once again heading out of town just as the federal unemployment insurance programs are slated to expire, this time right as the holiday season begins," said Christine Owens, the group's executive director. "It is critical to minimize the hardship and disruption to families and the economy."

Republicans maintain they're willing to extend the benefits but don't want to add the cost — $12.5 billion for three months — to the nation's $13.8 trillion national debt. "The fact is, we can both provide this help and pay for it by cutting less effective stimulus spending," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La. "That's what we should be debating today."

Every recession since 1950 has featured an extended federal benefits program financed with deficit dollars. That's a precedent Democrats refused to break when battling with Republicans for months earlier this year to extend the program.

Republicans didn't pay any political price for stalling efforts earlier this year to extend jobless benefits that provide critical help to the unemployed — including a seven-week stretch over the summer when jobless benefits were a piece of a failed Democratic tax and jobs bill. But allowing benefits to expire in the holiday season may draw negative attention to Republicans, especially when measured against their insistence on renewing tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers.

"It's just inconceivable that in the last gasp of this Congress you would turn all your attention to the top 2 percent of wage earners in the country at the same time that middle class families are struggling to hold their families together because of prolonged unemployment," said House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.

The additional jobless benefits programs began in 2008 under President George W. Bush but were made more generous under last year's economic recovery act. Jobless people are now eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits in most states. The first 26 weeks of benefits are paid for by states. About 3.8 million are now drawing those state-paid benefits.

Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report.

Jobless benefits to expire as Congress debates Bush tax cuts 11/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:22pm]

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