WASHINGTON -- Democrats in Congress demanded on Thursday that any upcoming "fiscal cliff" deal include a continuation of federal unemployment insurance, which is set to expire at the end of the year.
"We have 2 million families that are in a very difficult situation if we do not extend unemployment insurance benefits," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said during a press conference at the Capitol. "This is the real cliff."
Unless Congress acts to reauthorize federal benefits for the long-term unemployed, 2 million laid off workers will abruptly stop receiving benefits after Dec. 29, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy and research group.
The unemployment lapse is one of the less-noticed elements of the so-called fiscal cliff, the moment at which a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes is scheduled to take effect. The biggest disagreement is over expiring Bush-era tax cuts; top Republicans want to keep all the cuts, while Democrats only want to renew them for annual household incomes below $250,000.
"The dire consequences of failing to help jobless Americans are not debatable," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said. "If there is an agreement on the fiscal cliff, unemployment insurance must be included. If there is not an agreement reached, we must extend unemployment separately."
Republicans haven't said much about the benefits, which last up to 43 weeks and kick in for workers who've gone through 26 weeks of state-funded benefits. House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) recent fiscal cliff offer to President Barack Obama didn't say whether Republicans opposed the reauthorization, which would cost $30 billion through next year.
"Republicans didn't even mention it in their fiscal cliff offer to president last week," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. "Instead, their plan put a premium on extending tax breaks for the wealthy."
Rory Cooper, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), called the Republicans' offer a legitimate opening to negotiations and didn't rule out unemployment benefits.
"The letter was a substantive starting point, and much more needs to be discussed, which is why we hope the President gets serious about avoiding the fiscal cliff," Cooper said. "Senator Schumer is also on record opposing President Obama’s proposed tax rate hikes, which is a good start."
From 2009 through 2011, unemployed Americans in states with the highest unemployment rates have been eligible for as many as 99 weeks of combined state and federal jobless aid. In February, Congress reduced the maximum to 73 weeks. But nobody will receive any federal aid after Dec. 29.
Elijah Ellis of San Francisco said that when he lost his job as sales manager for a telecom company in May of this year, someone at the California Employment Development Department told him during an informal conversation that his unemployment benefits would last a lot longer than December.
"Back then they told me hey, 99 weeks, you can qualify for all these extensions," Ellis said.
When he learned recently that federal benefits are scheduled to end abruptly on Dec. 29, he broadened his job search. Now in addition to jobs like the one he lost, Ellis, 35, is seeking whatever office work he can find through temp agencies.
"I lowered what I’m willing to accept as far as a position as soon as I found out that I don’t have 99 weeks," he said.
The department's website says "close to 400,000 Californians will face a sudden cut-off in these federal extension benefit payments unless Congress and the President take further action."