House OKs extension of unemployment benefits


The U.S. House of Representatives approved another extension of unemployment benefits on Friday. But this widening of the safety net could be the last as lawmakers grow uneasy over the costs of what is looking to some like an unfunded welfare benefit.

In a 215-204 vote, House members approved extending benefits through Nov. 30, which would help nearly 350,000 long-term unemployed people nationwide from falling off the unemployment rolls by next month.

But the measure still must be approved by the Senate, which has already left for a weeklong Memorial Day break. That means some workers’ benefits will expire May 31, although they could be restored retroactively.

The last time benefits were extended, in April, delays in Congress caused gaps in checks for the unemployed. The delays are leaving states such as California scrambling to keep up with the latest changes and extensions in the law.

“It’s a nightmare for states to administer,” said Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the Employment Development Department. “We’re trying to get a sense if there’s going to be a gap, which it’s starting to look like there is.”

There are 2.3 million people out of work in California, and nearly 115,400 have exhausted all available benefits. Benefits vary nationwide. But the maximum duration in California and some other states, including all federal extensions, remains capped at 99 weeks.

Friday’s House extension is part of a scaled-back $112-billion package that also includes tax breaks and an annual patch to prevent pay cuts for Medicare doctors. With new taxes on investment fund managers and overseas companies to offset the spending, the final cost is $54 billion.

As they struggled for votes, House Democratic leaders agreed to eliminate an extension of the health insurance subsidy for laid-off workers who pay to remain on their company policies.

Even as economists attest to the stimulus power that comes from putting money in the pockets of the jobless, the reluctance of deficit hawks within the Democratic Party to accept increased spending jeopardizes further aid, particularly as the economy shows signs of recovery.

“I think beyond this it’s going to be very difficult to justify if the economy continues to improve,” said Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), whose district faces a 9% unemployment rate. “What this shows is the Democratic Party are the people who are fiscally responsible, who are concerned about the deficit now.”

Just three months ago, a block on further unemployment benefits in the Senate seemed anathema to the national mood, as Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) essentially shut down chamber action over his insistence that further aid be fully funded rather than added to the debt.

Even several of his Republican colleagues at the time objected.

Yet as the November midterm elections approach, the deficit is becoming a dominant political concern. Republicans hammer the issue daily, and the debt crises in Greek and some European countries have reminded voters of the perils of deficit spending.

Staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.