Congress will be in recess when jobless aid programs expire on April 5, possibly causing laid-off workers to miss a payment of unemployment benefits before the programs can be reauthorized when the House and Senate return in two weeks.
Senate Democrats attempted several times to move on House-passed legislation that would have extended the programs, only to be blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who objected that the bill would add $9.2 billion to the deficit. The measure would temporarily extend eligibility for Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides up to 53 weeks of unemployment benefits. The measure would also extend subsidies for COBRA health insurance for laid-off workers.
Coburn pushed a bill with identical extensions paid for with unused stimulus funds, which Democrats rejected several times before voting to adjourn for two weeks on Thursday.
Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, said she is praying that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will reconvene the Senate, which he gave himself the power to do with a "conditional adjournment" motion.
"Until I hear definitively from somebody in leadership I am choosing to remain optimistic that the majority leadership will do the right thing and drag people back into town," said Conti.
It's an unlikely proposition.
State labor departments may be able to take the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program's lapse in stride. When Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) obstructed the previous extension in February, workforce agencies generally had no trouble keeping the program afloat for a week with the expectation that it would soon be reauthorized.
"The effects probably will be nearly as minimal as they were last time," said Rich Hobbie, director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.
At the same time, they notified benefits recipients that because of congressional inaction, they would soon lose eligibility for additional "tiers" of benefits, causing panic and confusion among laid-off workers. Conti said that that is happening again.
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"The unemployed in this country are losing faith in Congress's ability to help them," said Conti, who told HuffPost her office fields several hundred calls from benefits recipients this week. "You should hear the calls I get from workers -- they're panicked, they're angry, they're stressed."
Many states provide "Extended Benefits," which are not affected by the coming lapse. In Michigan, for example, benefits recipients currently on their initial 26 weeks of state-funded benefits will lose eligibility for the 53 weeks of EUC. But if their 26 weeks run out after the lapse, instead of receiving EUC they'll switch over to Extended Benefits, which provide up to 20 weeks of compensation.
Norm Isotalo, a spokesman for Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency, told HuffPost that Michigan will not devote resources to sending out letters to unemployment recipients like it did last time. "We remain optimistic" that Congress will reauthorize EUC before too much time passes.
At a press conference on Friday, HuffPost asked Coburn if he thought laid-off workers share the concern expressed by Republican senators that extending the benefits will add $9.2 billion to a $1.5 trillion projected deficit.
"Hopefully they're not going to stay unemployed," Coburn said, "and when they're reemployed, one of two things is going to happen: Either we're going to cut spending or somebody's going to raise their taxes."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) chimed in to say, "I think most people, if asked to vote between socking it to the debt or paying for it in a fiscally responsibly way, you'd have a very large majority of people going on unemployment in favor of a fiscally responsible process."
Coburn repeatedly insisted that Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday night agreed to a one-week extension with funding offsets, but that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected it. Pelosi's office denies that Senate leadership had a deal. A new compromise bill with offsets would have required approval by the House, which was also eager to get on with its recess.
And Coburn reminded reporters that it was Democrats who voted to adjourn -- Republicans voted against adjournment, and Coburn said he would have been willing to stay in town through Wednesday.
Both parties have made the political calculation that the other side will look worse for letting the program lapse. Both insist that all they're trying to do is help the American people. It's just a question of which people: Throughout the debate, Democrats repeatedly evoked the plight of the unemployed -- folks who could immediately miss a check and be unable to pay for food or a mortgage. Republicans take the longer view, insisting that while the unemployed deserve help, they don't deserve it at the cost of driving up the deficit for future generations.
"There comes a time in everyone's life when you have made bad decisions, to decide whether for the sake of other people, like your kids and grandkids, maybe you can make a better decision," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in response to questions about the fiscal irresponsibility of the GOP over the past decade. "What we're saying is, we have that time now. We have that moment now, and let's take advantage of it."
On the Senate floor, Sen. George LeMieux (the Republican senator appointed by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to hold the seat of Mel Martinez, who quit his term early to become a lobbyist while Crist himself campaigns for the seat), tried for a more tangible example. He argued that fiscal forbearance in Washington would help an unemployed family in Florida afford its mortgage.
He cited a Friday Wall Street Journal story that described how a drop-off in demand caused by too much borrowing is forcing the Treasury to offer higher interest rates on U.S. government debt.
"It's going to increase the cost of borrowing money, which is going to increase the cost of mortgages," LeMieux said. "I sure want to extend unemployment insurance to folks who are suffering, but I also don't want to do any more damage to our real estate market. We have some of the worst foreclosure rates in the country. So what's going to happen when that family of four in Naples, Fla., who has been struggling through this economy, has a problem keeping a job? Maybe mom lost a job -- now she is underemployed, dad is unemployed, they are trying to make their mortgage payments, they have an adjustable rate mortgage and their interest payments are going to go up."
Of course, a person might also have trouble making a mortgage payment if they rely on unemployment compensation and unexpectedly miss a check.
A reporter asked Coburn if disrupting unemployment insurance was an acceptable price to pay for fiscal discipline. "Absolutely," he said.
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