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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.

J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Congress set to debate long-term unemployment benefits in new year

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL
  • Star Tribune
  • December 28, 2013 - 10:13 PM

– More than 9,200 Minnesotans lost federal emergency unemployment insurance Saturday.

By not extending the benefits before leaving Washington for holiday recess, Congress left the nation’s longtime jobless in the lurch.

Support for a three-month extension is gaining traction in the Democrat-led U.S. Senate, which is set to take a procedural vote to extend unemployment aid when lawmakers return Jan. 6. The plan has support from the White House and some Senate Republicans.

But citing concerns about cost, the Republican-run House has been reluctant to jump on board. A one-year extension of the benefits would cost about $25.2 billion, while three months would cost an estimated $6.5 billion, which would not currently be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

Congressional Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, have spent the holiday break pressing Republicans to agree to renew the benefits.

Their plan is to highlight hard-hit areas, making it more difficult for individual GOP lawmakers to avoid discussing the direct consequences.

To that end, Democrats distributed county-level data on the 1.3 million people nationwide who will be booted off benefits.

More than 1,200 people could lose benefits in U.S. Rep. John Kline’s district, which covers the suburbs and exurbs south of the Twin Cities.

The cutback also hit Democratic districts hard. More than 2,300 people in Hennepin County, which includes Ellison’s district, could be cut off.

In addition to those losing benefits now, the White House says 57,000 more Minnesotans would have become eligible for extended benefits in 2014.

The Senate vote and pressure from House Democrats amount to an election-year dare to Republicans to cut off benefits for people who have been looking for work for at least six months.

With the overall unemployment rate dropping, some fiscal conservatives may just call their bluff.

Minnesota’s unemployment rate is at 4.6 percent, the lowest level since the start of the Great Recession and much lower than the national rate of 7 percent.

As part of their effort to whittle the federal deficit, Republicans want to limit access to the unemployment insurance, arguing that the funds give citizens less incentive to find work.

House Speaker John Boehner has said he’d consider extending unemployment benefits, as there are cuts elsewhere and the legislation has other components hat will help energize the economy.

Letting the benefits expire could cost as many as 200,000 jobs nationwide, according to a Congressional Budget Office report. The same report says the short-term stimulus of the benefits outweighs the economic effect of the cost.

All of Minnesota’s Democratic members of Congress, except for fiscal conservative U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, have signaled support for extending the payments.

It may not matter much.

If Republicans stick to their demands for spending cuts to extend the benefits, Democratic leaders may not have enough leverage in early 2014 to force a House floor vote.

The potential impasse could place Congress in the same predicament that led to record-low approval ratings this year: passing blame instead of bills.

 

corey.mitchell@startribune.com • 202-383-6121

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