Unemployment benefits expire as Congress debates extension

As unemployment benefits expired Monday for tens of thousands of jobless workers, Democrats and Republicans renewed their haggling over whether to vote for an extension when Congress returns from its spring break next week.

At the heart of the dispute is whether the extension should be offset by spending cuts, as Republicans are demanding, or whether it constitutes an emergency, as Democrats say.

The expiration means 212,000 unemployed people will lose benefits this week, according to figures provided by the National Employment Law Project.

In the latest round of skirmishing, Senate Democrats rejected Republican charges that they had backed away from a deal giving quick approval to a one-week extension, paid for with budget offsets, that would have kept unemployment checks coming until Congress reconvened.

“There were a lot of conversations going on and things were moving very quickly, but no deals were made,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Two weeks ago, when the Senate took up the question of a 30-day extension already approved by the House, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected that the $9-billion price tag would add to the federal deficit.

The GOP objection raised the specter of a filibuster; Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority.

Democrats in both the House and Senate want the extension to be classified as emergency spending, which can be added to the deficit and does not have to be paid for with specific cuts or new revenue.

Manley said that agreeing to cut the budget to pay for the temporary extension would lock the government into a long-term commitment for a short-term result.

“It is inexcusable and irresponsible for Republicans to once again block the extension of these benefits,” Reid said in a statement.

The Senate is set for a cloture vote when Congress reconvenes Monday.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, warned in a statement Friday that the “long slog of looking for work and surviving on jobless benefits is going to continue for millions of Americans.”

“It’s Congress’ job now to take effective and aggressive steps to create jobs and extend unemployment through the end of the year, so that the economy can get back on its feet,” she said.