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Unemployment Benefits Not Renewed As Congress Leaves The Jobless Hanging

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AP
AP

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress are set to go home for the year without an agreement on how to prevent more than a million jobless from abruptly losing their unemployment insurance in January.

Republicans have pushed a yearlong reauthorization of federal unemployment programs and a payroll tax cut as part of a broader package that included provisions Democrats consider poison pills. On Tuesday, House Republicans rejected an overwhelmingly bipartisan Senate bill to preserve the unemployment insurance and a host of other programs for two months, leaving no clear path forward.

"I'm sure people all over the country who are on unemployment insurance are worried about their benefits lapsing," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told HuffPost on Tuesday. "I think that's a given here, and that's why it's so outrageous the president's an absentee and the Senate has left town."

Members of the House of Representatives are set to leave town, as well. Republican leaders told members on Tuesday afternoon that the House will be in session "as necessary" and they'll receive 24 hours' notice should any additional votes be scheduled. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he hoped Democrats would appoint negotiators to work out a deal before the end of the month. Democrats have said the House ought to approve the Senate bill.

At stake in the legislative package are, among other things, a 2 percent payroll tax cut that benefits every working American, a "doc fix" provision to prevent a 27 percent pay cut to doctors who see Medicare patients, the speedy consideration of a controversial oil pipeline and the unemployment insurance.

Currently, 3.5 million long-term jobless receive benefits from two federal programs known as Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits, which together have provided up to 73 weeks of assistance for people who use up 26 weeks of state aid without finding work. The Obama administration estimates 1.3 million will stop receiving benefits next month if Congress fails to act before the new year (the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, has put the number at 1.8 million).

If unemployment benefits lapse, it won't be the first time. Benefits were interrupted repeatedly in 2010, whenever a short-term reauthorization came due in Congress. Millions of people missed checks for weeks at a time over the summer and in the winter. People who missed checks were given lump-sum payments when lawmakers could eventually strike a deal.

Last week the House passed a bill that would have shortened the duration of benefits by 40 weeks. It also would have allowed states to require the jobless to prove they're not on drugs in order to receive compensation. Some Republicans are skeptical anyone can be legitimately unemployed for 99 weeks, the combined duration of state and federal benefits in hardest-hit states.

"One of the things the Dems are always saying, 'People who are unemployed through no fault of their own,' and I'd like to explore that as a society," Rep. Kingston said. "Who is genuinely trying and who is deciding that their pride isn't going to let them be underemployed? ... So many of the people who talk about unemployment are not employers who hire people. And the people who hire people should have probably more say-so in the discussion generally."

Kingston, who's served in the House since the early 1990s, is the leading proponent of drug testing the jobless. Businesses in his district complain they can't find workers who can pass a drug test. It's something many Republicans have said they hear from local employers. While the two-month duration of the Senate bill has been the main Republican grievance, Kingston and several others have said the House-passed reforms to the unemployment system, including the drug testing, have been a sticking point as well.

Several dozen jobless have told HuffPost they hope Congress comes through. Lori Barnes of St. John's, Fla., said she lost her job running a lawyer referral service for a local bar association in October of 2010. She's landed several interviews but hasn't received an offer. She knows it's possible for someone to be unemployed for two years: She said her husband was out of work for exactly that long before finding a job in February of 2010.

Barnes, a 45-year-old mother of three, said she discovered her benefits would run out next month when she called the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. She said she was told, "It's going to end in January. All your extensions will be over. If Congress extends benefits before they leave for break, you should be okay, but don't count on it."

If Congress keeps federal unemployment programs in place, Barnes would probably be eligible for another roughly 6 months of benefits. She's optimistic she'll find a job; she just doesn't know when. She said ideally she'd like a job as a paralegal or an insurance claims adjuster, but that she's also applied for supermarket and retail work.

Barnes said she would be willing to take a drug test if she had to.

"I don't do drugs, so it's no big deal, but I think it's crazy," she said. "It might help somebody get a job: the person who's doing the drug testing. But it's a waste of money."

Arthur Delaney is the author of "A People's History of the Great Recession," HuffPost's first e-book.

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