POLITICS
12/13/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2013

Unemployment Benefits Are Expiring And Congress Has No Clue What To Do About It

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives has left town for Christmas vacation, making it all but certain that unemployed workers will lose their federal benefits on Dec. 28, as they are currently scheduled to do.

But if you think that 1.3 million longterm jobless Americans taking a financial hit would be a hot topic for the lawmakers still in town, you'd be wrong. Senate Democrats have conceded they'll miss the deadline to extend the benefits and have begun hatching plans to renew them retroactively in the new year. Senate Republicans don't seem to have given much thought to the matter at all.

On Friday, The Huffington Post asked a number of Republican senators whether there have been discussions within their caucus about the expiring unemployment insurance.

"None," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "There has been no discussion. It has never come up."

"I haven't heard any discussions yet," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

"It is not in the budget so I don't expect that it is going to come up," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

"I think we need to look at it. I'd like some more information," said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). "But there really hasn't been any discussion."

Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats' plan -- at least as of Friday -- is to reauthorize the benefits after they've expired. Workers would receive lump-sum checks for any missed weeks of insurance, as they have several times in recent years. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn't been specific about how he plans to make that happen.

On Friday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) named several bills lawmakers could attach the benefits to, including pending legislation that would fix the Sustainable Growth Rate formula for paying Medicare doctors, a handful of expiring tax provisions, and a massive spending bill to fund the federal government.

"Maybe over the Christmas holidays, Republicans will realize that their faith may say, 'You ought to help these people that have lost jobs,'" Brown told The Huffington Post. "Maybe they'll change their minds."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) suggested he'll use his support for the compromise budget bill next week as leverage to push for a future extension of unemployment insurance. Harkin and other Democrats have bitterly complained that the benefits were omitted from the budget deal.

"Some of us who are maybe going to vote against the budget are trying to work out a deal to see what we can do in January when we come back," Harkin said. "We have to do something on [unemployment insurance]. It is not right to kick a million people off."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, told The Washington Post he'd encourage House Democrats to withhold their votes for a new farm bill next month unless the GOP gives in on unemployment benefits.

But advocates for the jobless aren't holding their breath. Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, said her group would try to hold lawmakers accountable for their promises, though she is not optimistic they'll keep them.

"Promises are all well and good and I don’t doubt their sincerity, but it’s easy to lose steam over the holiday recess, especially after such a big vote," Conti said. She added that lawmakers should know that the unemployed and their advocates "are going to hold them responsible" for reauthorizing the benefits.

The unemployed themselves are watching closely. Last week Laureen Crane of McKees Rocks, Pa., received a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry informing her that her Emergency Unemployment Compenstation would end on Dec. 28.

She called the department to ask why and they explained that the program was ending because Congress had not reauthorized it. They told her to "keep watching the news."

Crane, 63, fears she'll be forced into premature retirement. She lost her accounting job for an airplane parts manufacturer in May and hasn't had any work since, aside from seven weeks with a temp agency.

"All I'm doing right now is praying to God to see me through all this," she said. "If I can't get back to work I can't pay taxes. And that's not helping this country."

When the economy is bad, Congress gives workers extra weeks of federal benefits that kick in once their state benefits run out. When the economy improves, Congress takes the extra weeks away. The unemployment rate has fallen to 7 percent from a high of 10 percent in 2010, but conditions haven't improved enough for Crane to find a job.

She doesn't want to draw Social Security old-age insurance before she's eligible for a bigger benefit, but she's unsure how she and her husband will be able to keep their car and their house otherwise. She doesn't think Congress will come through for her.

"I'm not counting on it," she said. "This country's crazy. I just feel like we're going down the tubes."

This article was updated after publication to include a fuller quote from Judy Conti.

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