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Unemployment benefits at risk

Ky. Republican stalls Senate bill

By Stephen Ohlemacher
Associated Press / February 27, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Senate failed to extend programs for laid-off workers yesterday, jeopardizing unemployment benefits scheduled to expire tomorrow.

The benefits are part of a larger package of government programs, from highway funding to loans for small businesses, set to expire because senators couldn’t agree on how to pay for them.

The House passed a bill Thursday extending the programs for one month while lawmakers consider how to address the issues long term. Senate Democrats repeatedly tried to follow suit Thursday night and yesterday morning, but they couldn’t overcome the objections of a single lawmaker, Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky, that the $10 billion bill would add to the budget deficit.

The bill would extend unemployment payments to laid-off workers and provide them with subsidies to help pay health premiums through the COBRA program. It would extend funding for highway projects and spare doctors from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments. It would also extend a small-business loan program, the National Flood Insurance Program, and the copyright license used by satellite television providers. Senators said more than a million rural viewers would not be able to watch local stations on their systems without an extension.

The dispute leaves the programs in limbo as the Senate struggles to overcome partisan bickering over a budget deficit projected to hit a record $1.56 trillion this year. Democrats are eager to address unemployment, with the jobless rate just under 10 percent and congressional elections looming in November. Some Republicans, however, are not eager to accommodate.

At issue are the several tiers of unemployment insurance available to workers whose initial 26 weeks of benefits have expired. The federal government funds several types of extensions for people who have been jobless for longer than that.

The cutoff wouldn’t affect most people receiving extended benefits, said Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. Instead, people would be prevented from obtaining new benefit extensions. About 1.1 million people could lose benefits in the unlikely event the impasse lasts through March.