WASHINGTON -- Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Bobby Scott (Va.) are reintroducing legislation this week to provide additional weeks of unemployment insurance benefits for "99ers," the long-term jobless who have exhausted their benefits and still haven't found work.
"The bill that I am introducing with Congressman Scott, The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act, would ensure that these long-term unemployed workers get the long overdue assistance that they need to support their families, make ends meet and contribute to our economy," Lee said in a statement. "Our bill would add 14 weeks of emergency unemployment benefits and would make sure these benefits are retroactively available to people who have exhausted all their benefits and are still unemployed."
Given Republican hostility to additional deficit spending -- Lee's office said the cost of the extra benefits would not be offset -- the effort will likely amount to little more than a reminder that long-term unemployment persists even though much of the nation's political discourse is focused on signs of economic recovery.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 1.4 million Americans have been unemployed for as long as 99 weeks. Of the 13.9 million unemployed, 43.8 percent -- or 6.2 million -- have been out of work for six months or longer.
Lee and Scott are holding a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the bill further. They will be joined by 99ers from an ad hoc online group that calls itself the American 99ers Union. "The American 99ers Union supports government spending that results in a positive return on investment," a statement from the group said. "The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act will effectively serve this purpose."
Lee and Scott expressed frustration last year, when they first introduced an extension bill, that President Barack Obama omitted help for the 99ers from the deal he struck with congressional Republicans that preserved tax breaks for the rich and reauthorized extended federal unemployment benefits through 2011. Federal unemployment benefits enacted in response to the recession provide the unemployed up to 73 weeks of benefits beyond the standard 26 weeks provided by states. (The full complement of federal benefits is only available in 25 states, so some exhaustees are not officially 99ers.)
The Lee-Scott bill faces even tougher odds in the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives than it did last year in the previous Congress, when helping the 99ers was barely an afterthought.
"If you're serious about helping Americans on unemployment, you need to show how you'll pay for the cost with cuts elsewhere," a House GOP aide said. "If you don't do that, you're looking to issue a press release, not to actually help people."
Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the progressive Economic Policy Institute who supports the legislation and will attend Wednesday's press conference, said there's no economic reason for benefits to stop at 99 weeks.
"There is no magic number of how long extensions should last," she said. "There's just nothing in the economic literature that says 99 weeks is the limit. It's not like if we break the 100 barrier things are going to fall apart."
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