Unemployment benefits: Jim Bunning relents, Senate passes extension

When Sen. Jim Bunning lifted his block, the Senate approved a 30-day extension of federal unemployment benefits. More than 200,000 unemployed Americans were set to lose benefits, half of whom already had stopped receiving unemployment checks.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. heads for the weekly caucus lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. Bunning blocked a vote on extending unemployment benefits.

In a sprint on Tuesday night, the US Senate passed a 30-day extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits, then raced it to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

The passage and enactment of the legislation means that state agencies can begin sending checks to thousands of unemployed Americans who were in danger of losing their benefit if Congress did not act.

Groups involved with unemployment issues believe passage of the extension may have allowed some states enough time to cut checks for those who are already eligible to receive the extended benefits. However, almost half of the 200,000 people per week affected by the extension are filing for the first time.

Worried about not getting checks

“Those are the ones we are worried about not getting their checks this week,” says Andrew Stettner of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which advocates for the unemployed. “We know there will be delays.”

The extension means if an individual was about to exhaust their state benefits and about to exhaust a tier of emergency unemployment compensation, they are eligible to apply to move up to the next tier. However, if an individual is about to exhaust their final tier or extended benefits, this will not help them.

“This does not add more weeks of benefits, it just extends the deadline in which people can qualify for either Emergency Unemployment Compensation or extended benefits,” says Judy Conti of NELP in Washington. (Monitor report on states hardest hit by delay on unemployment benefits here.)

The 30-day extension of the benefits will cost the federal government about $10 billion.

The battle over how or whether to pay for it became a focal point in the Senate – especially for Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Ky. who held up consideration of the legislation unless it found a way to pay for it. Congress has already passed legislation requiring it to pay for any new spending, but it waived that requirement for the unemployment legislation.

“The short term extension of expiring provisions is designated emergency spending because in economic downturns of this magnitude the Senate has traditionally treated extraordinary assistance to the unemployed as an emergency,” writes Regan Lachapelle, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), in an email.

Sen. Bunning wanted to pay for the extension by removing part of a tax credit the paper industry receives for wood-pulp used to provide bio-fuels to power plants. The product is called “black liquor.” But even before the vote, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of Calif. raised a budget point of order against the Bunning amendment. The Senate voted not to allow a vote on the Bunning amendment, prompting the Kentucky Republican, on his web site, to accuse the Democrats of a “procedural gimmick.”

Bunning didn't have the votes

However, writes Ms. Lachapelle, “He simply did not have the votes needed … to allow his amendment to move forward.”

For many unemployed, the passage of the extension became a passion. (Monitor reports on record numbers of long-term unemployed here.)

“They were sending in letters, e-mails and calling to try to move this legislation forward,” says Jennifer Hong, who runs the web site Unemployed-Friends from Columbia, S.C. “There was a lot of anger.”

She says there is now some relief for people whose benefits would have stopped, but there is also concern that Congress take up the long-term extension of unemployment benefits. That is part of a bill introduced by Sen. Reid on Monday. Ms. Lachapelle expects it will pass Congress next week.

“The bill passed [Tuesday night] by the Senate will extend access to healthcare benefits for workers who have lost their jobs, help small businesses get loans so they can grow and hire, and extend unemployment insurance benefits for millions of Americans who are looking for work,” President Obama said in a statement. “I’m grateful to the members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle who worked to end this roadblock to relief for America’s working families.”

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