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Policy: Economy

Democrats: Expiration of jobless benefits is an emergency like Hurricane Sandy

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Congressional Democrats on Friday compared the expiration of the unemployment insurance program in December to the devastation wrought on the East Coast in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy as they try to drum up support for a key vote on extending benefits next week.

“Essentially what happened was a hurricane for 1.3 million people," Rep. Sandy Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said of the Dec. 28 expiration of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program for those out of work for 27 weeks or longer.

Democrats are getting behind a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, and Republican Sen. Dean Heller, of Nevada, that would extend benefits for three months. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled a vote on the bill for Monday, when the Senate returns to from its holiday recess.

But Democrats are not sure the measure has enough support to pass the Senate. And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned that House Republicans will not support the bill unless its costs are offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Levin and other Democrats, however, say that the benefits are an emergency measure, and should be treated as one so it can be reauthorized without the offsetting cuts.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Friday noted that Congress handled the emergency funding needed to clean up after Sandy "in a relatively lethargic way" and only after the "heat was turned up" by residents of the affected states. The $51 billion aid package passed Congress in January 2013, three months after the second-costliest storm in U.S. history hit.

The lawmakers said they hoped that reports of families hurt by the loss of unemployment benefits would create similar momentum for Congress to approve an extension next week, without offsets.

Unemployed worker stories should “leave Congress with no choice but to extend benefits," said Levin.

Levin cited the lingering effects of the recession to make the case that the situation remains an emergency for Americans who have exhausted the normal 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that there are still nearly three unemployed workers for every job opening, twice the number before the recession officially began in late 2007.

And while the labor market has picked up for workers who only recently lost their jobs, the outlook remains dire for those who have been looking for work for 27 weeks or more -- a group that accounts for a third of all unemployed.

Although benefits expired in December for 1.3 million of the 4.1 million long-term unemployed and are currently unavailable for thousands more who exhaust regular benefits each week, supporters of the Reed-Heller bill hope to provide benefits retroactively to those who lost them.

A spokesman for Reed told the Washington Examiner that state officials are urging job seekers to keep applying for benefits, and in some cases sending notices to encourage eligible workers to continue filing claims so they can collect back benefits should Congress pass the bill.

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