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GOP Blocks Unemployment Extension Again, But Do They Even Know What They're Blocking?

December 2, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

By now it’s a familiar story. Senate Democrats call for a unanimous consent agreement on passing legislation to extend unemployment insurance benefits and a single Republican stand up and objects, blocking the bill from passing on behalf of the entire party. It happened on Tuesday and it happened gains yesterday, this time with Sen. John Barrasso [R, WY] doing the GOP’s dirty work.

On one level this is the same as ever. Republicans want any unemployment extension to be paid for by rescinding funds from the stimulus and Democrats want to fund the extension with deficit spending in order to get the maximum stimulus effect. What was especially troubling about today’s Senate floor action is that it gave us more evidence that, in the midst of an unemployment crisis, some members of Congress may be confused on the basics of federal benefits extensions.

Arthur Delaney at Huffington Post reports:

Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso blocked a request to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits on Thursday, saying a better way to help the unemployed would be to improve the economy by giving “certainty” to businesses on taxes.

“This is about people who have been collecting unemployment benefits for 99 weeks,” said Barrasso, describing the bill he just blocked.

Except he wasn’t describing it. The bill Democrats have been pushing is for a yearlong reauthorization of two programs called Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits, which combined provide up to 73 weeks of benefits in some states. Those programs lapsed this week, meaning people laid off through no fault of their own are now eligible for just 26 weeks of state-funded benefits.

If the lapsed benefits are reauthorized, some unemployed will once again be eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits — but not any more.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) interrupted Barrasso to correct him. “I just want you to understand that this extension is not for anything beyond 99 weeks,” she said. “We do not have any extension beyond 99 weeks. I just wanted my friend to know that.”

“I appreciate the comments from the senator from California,” Barrasso said.

Barrasso made the same mistake describing unemployment legislation in an interview with PBS on Wednesday evening. “Right now we have benefits for people who are out of work up to 99 weeks so this goes beyond that,” he said. (Barrasso said he supported extending unemployment, just with a Republican bill that offset the cost of the benefits with spending cuts.

Let’s clear this up. For the past two years or so, unemployed workers have been eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits depending on the unemployment rate of their state. Now that Congress has allowed federal benefits to lapse, the maximum duration that anyone in any state can receive benefits is 26 weeks. The average length of unemployment right now is 34 weeks, so most people who lose their jobs now would go for two months or so without government assistance before they find another job.

The bill Democrats keep bringing up on the floor, S.3981, would restore the up to 73 additional weeks of benefits. It would not add additional weeks beyond the 99 that has been the status quo. It would simply make it possible for people who became unemployed more recently than 99 weeks ago and still haven’t found a job to collect benefits for the same length of time as people who lost their job more than 99 weeks ago.

Democrats argue that this makes sense given that the Federal Reserve is now projecting that the unemployment rate will stay pretty much where it is for all of 2011. Some Democrats are pushing to add weeks beyond the 99 — a bill, S.3706, has been introduced to that effect — but so far the debate has focused on restoring the 99 weeks, not adding more.

Sen. Barrasso is pictured above.

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