Advocates for the jobless are divided on whether a deal reauthorizing emergency benefits for a full year has saved or screwed the unemployed.
Fans of the deal, including the White House, the AFL-CIO, and the National Employment Law Project, say legislation passed by Congress Thursday evening provides the longest-possible -- and nearly the longest-ever -- reauthorization of extended unemployment benefits, despite fierce Republican opposition to the extension.
Many Democrats in the House of Representatives remain unimpressed.
"This legislation will push struggling American families off their last lifelines during the worst recession since the Great Depression just to give tax breaks to the super rich," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in a statement Friday morning.
McDermott's statement reflects many Democrats' concern that the fate of the jobless aid one year from now will be decided by a Republican-controlled Congress at a time when the employment situation isn't expected to be much better than it is now.
The bill reauthorized two programs, Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits, which provide up to 73 weeks of help to laid-off workers who have exhausted the 26 weeks of aid provided by states. Congress has given layoff victims extra weeks of benefits during every recession going back to the 1950s, but Republicans recently lost their appetite for the deficit-spending that traditionally funds the benefits, blocking much shorter reauthorizations several times this year.
(For people who exhaust even the federally-funded benefits, which in some states allow 99 weeks of aid, no help is forthcoming in the foreseeable future.)
What's so galling to Democrats is that the tax cuts for the rich were reauthorized not for one year, but for two. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) pushed a resolution that would have equalized the duration of the benefits and tax breaks, but Democratic leadership pushed it aside in favor of an amendment to modify the bill's estate tax provisions. The amendment failed as many Democrats who had previously supported nearly identical legislation flipped their votes.
"Screwed again," Wu said after the vote on Thursday evening.
Nearly five million people relied on the federally-funded benefits as of last week, according to the Labor Department. More than six million of the 15.1 million unemployed have been out of work for longer than six months.
Republicans signaled Thursday evening that unemployment benefits for those people will be handled differently from now on.
"I think we should have paid for the extension of unemployment insurance and, frankly, we will," Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), incoming chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said during floor debate before the bill passed. "I'm committed to producing legislation next year to revamp, reform, and pay for the federal unemployment benefits our nation provides."
Not "paying for" unemployment benefits is one of the only things congressional Democrats have held firm on in the past year, as they suspect offsetting the benefits' cost undermines their economic stimulus and sets a precedent that could lead to the undoing of one of the federal government's main tools for fighting a recession.
Supporters of the deal don't disagree, but they focus on the fact that even three-month extensions have been difficult to achieve.
"Until recently, insiders in Washington, D.C., had not given much chance for a full-year reauthorization and a continuation of full emergency federal funding for the programs," wrote Mitchell Hirsch of the National Employment Law Project. "But unemployed workers and our allies were undaunted and unwavering -- and we've won."
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told HuffPost after voting for the deal that he hoped it would improve the economy enough to prevent another hostage situation this time next year.
"We have to hope that this package will have the desired stimulative effect and will help bring down unemployment so that an emergency extension may not be needed," he said.
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