Jim Bunning delays vote; unemployed face first week without check

With Sen. Jim Bunning blocking a vote on extending unemployment benefits, some 205,000 Americans will not get a check this week, says the National Employment Law Project.

Ed Reinke/AP
Janie Lee of Ewbank, Ky., talks to another demonstrator while attending a rally in opposition to Republican Sen. Jim Bunning in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday.

Susan in Sarasota, Fla., says she may lose her house when, after Sen. Jim Bunning blocked a vote on extending unemployment benefits, her unemployment benefits run out.

“Imagine what I have to say daily to my six-year-old to explain why mommy and daddy are so sad all the time,” writes a woman in California, with a husband facing the prospect of no longer getting his unemployment check.

And a man in Chicago says that, without an extension of unemployment benefits, “I could go homeless soon.”

These stories are pouring into Congress as thousands of Americans, faced with an extremely tight job situation, are writing to urge an extension of federal unemployment benefits. According to an estimate from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in New York, some 205,000 people per week could lose their unemployment checks, starting this week.

For several weeks, the US Senate has tried to extend the federal program for 30 days, but Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky has blocked consideration, since he’s concerned over the rising budget deficit. He wants Congress to shift to a “pay as you go” mode for new spending. (The Monitor covered White House reaction to Bunning's one-man filibuster here.)

On Tuesday, Senator Bunning, who is not running for re-election, once again blocked a 30-day extension proposed by a fellow Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. However, there were reports circulating that the Senate was still trying to work out a deal with the Kentucky senator. Bunning has proposed using leftover federal stimulus funds to pay for the short-term extension, which will cost about $10 billion.

“He was offered the same opportunity last Thursday and declined it, saying he would lose the vote,” says Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for NELP, which advocates for the jobless. “All he has done is drag things out and make the program lapse, which will cost the states extra money to take down and then put back up again.” (For Monitor coverage of the states hit hardest by the delay, click here.)

Andrew Stettner of NELP says that, no matter what, some 205,000 people won’t get a check this week, since it takes anywhere from two to six weeks for the states to get their bureaucracies geared up. “We’ve already crossed the Rubicon. Now, we have to play catch-up,” he says.

One of those who will be missing a check is Denise Sims-Bowles, who has been out of work since September 2007. Even if the federal extension is approved, she would only get six more weeks of unemployment benefits, unless Congress creates a new tier for the long-term unemployed.

If she can’t find a job or get more benefits, she and her husband are considering selling their house in Pasadena, Calif. “If I can’t find work, we may have to go to Plan B, which is selling the home,” she says. “We have to look at all the things that are overhead.” (For an earlier Monitor report on Ms. Sims-Bowles, click here.)

If the Senate does act, the new extension of benefits will be retroactive to Feb. 28, when they expired. They have been extended twice over the past year.

The Senate wrangling comes only days before the February unemployment report is due to be released. The consensus for economists is for a loss of 50,000 jobs, with the unemployment rate rising to 9.8 percent from 9.7 percent.

“It’s largely a weather story. The numbers would have been positive if not for the heavy snow,” says Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The Senate is also considering legislation that would extend the expanded unemployment benefits program until the end of the year, at a cost of $70 billion over 10 years. Called the American Workers State and Business Relief Act, it is sponsored by Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana.

In case the Senate cannot agree on a short-term extension, this bill would make payment of benefits retroactive to Feb. 28. It would also extend COBRA insurance until year-end, at a cost of $11.1 billion over 10 years.

Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Senator Reid, says she expects the legislation to pass next week. “We’re still hoping we can work something out with the short-term extension, since every day there is a delay, it effects many, many people throughout the country.”

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