John Barrasso Blocks Unemployment Bill He Doesn't Understand

GOP Senator Blocks Unemployment Bill He Doesn't Understand

WASHINGTON -- 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.)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) followed up. "I personally believe as long as the economy is as sluggish, as slow, as challenged as it is, that we ought to extend benefits beyond 99 weeks," she said. "But the bill that's in front of us is not that. It is the bill that Sen. Boxer talked about, which is the basic program. The program that basically says if you lose your job today, you have the same opportunity to receive some temporary help as the person who lost their job on Monday or Tuesday."

Stabenow, too, spoke incorrectly. Without the federally-funded benefits, people who lost their jobs on Monday or Tuesday are not eligible for any more help than people who lost their jobs after Wednesday, when the programs lapsed. The only layoff victims eligible for more help are the ones who lost their jobs more than 26 weeks before the programs lapsed. And the only ones who could have received the full 99 weeks had to have lost their jobs 99 weeks ago.

HuffPost first reported in November that members of Congress misunderstand unemployment legislation. It's a problem exacerbated by reporters who don't seem to understand it, either.

"It is the task for people like us, for the White House, for policymakers, and I would argue, for journalists covering the issue, to try to clarify what the issue is and what the issue is not," Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told HuffPost in November.

If the benefits aren't reauthorized, the failure to do so would represent Congressional stinginess of historical proportions. During recessions, the unemployed have always been given extra weeks of benefits beyond the 26 available from states, and benefits have never been taken away with the unemployment rate above 7.2 percent.

There are measures in the House and Senate to give additional weeks of benefits to jobless workers who have exhausted the 99 available in hardest-hit states, but negotiations are currently focused just on preserving the status quo.

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