The House of Representatives will vote Tuesday on a bill to reauthorize unemployment benefits for people who've been out of work for longer than six months, potentially setting up another last-minute standoff in the Senate as the July 4 recess approaches.
"I commend the House for taking up this measure and hope that it passes," said Judy Conti, a lobbyist with the National Employment Law Project. "If it does, it is the moral responsibility of every senator to stay in town until the bill is passed and sent to the president. The unemployed are not going to enjoy a holiday weekend if they don't know their checks are going to start coming back to them."
The stimulus bill provided extended unemployment benefits requiring congressional re-authorization every few months since December. Even though the unemployment rate is higher now than when the extended benefits were put in place, when it came time to reauthorize the benefits again in May, more conservative Democrats began to agree with Republicans that Congress should find funding offsets instead of adding to the deficit.
The House reauthorized the benefits as part of a broader domestic aid package before the benefits lapsed at the beginning of June, but Senate Democrats have been unable to overcome a Republican filibuster since then. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson has said he would vote against any bill that is not fully paid for, so Democrats have focused their lobbying on moderate Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), and Scott Brown (Mass.).
Without the federally-funded benefits, people unemployed through no fault of their own are eligible for only 26 weeks of state-funded benefits even though the average duration of unemployment is currently 34 weeks. (For the hundreds of thousands of people who have exhausted all 99 weeks available in some states, no further help is forthcoming.)
As of Friday, 1.2 million long-term unemployed have missed checks they would have received had they been laid off closer to the beginning of the recession. By the end of this week, that number will top 1.6 million. According to NELP, since 1959 Congress has never let extended unemployment benefits expire when the national unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent.
The bill the House will vote on Tuesday only contains the reauthorization of unemployment benefits, which it would keep in place through November.
"Nearly two million families are without their economic lifeline because of the latest Republican obstruction in the Senate to block the passage of jobs legislation that included unemployment benefits," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), cosponsor of the bill.
On Friday Olympia Snowe sent a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring up unemployment benefits as a standalone measure, exactly as the House is doing. A spokesman for Reid said Snowe was "sending the letter to the wrong person and to the wrong party. We know that the thousands of unemployed workers in Maine want an explanation as to why she joined with all Republicans to vote against legislation to help the unemployed and why she stood silent as members of her party objected to passing the same stand-alone bill she now says she seeks."
Snowe reiterated her position on Monday.
"There is a path forward on jobless benefits, but whether they take that opportunity or not remains to be seen," she said.