Unemployment Benefits Scheduled To End For 2 Million Unless Congress Acts

FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2012, file photo House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a m
FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2012, file photo House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a member of the House-Senate conference committee negotiating the extension of the payroll tax break, talk on Capitol Hill during attempts to reach an agreement. Democrats and Republicans are forcing votes in Congress this week of April 2012 on competing tax plans that they know are doomed from the start. But little does that matter to either party. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON -- Democrats in Congress have kicked off the annual battle over unemployment insurance that has become a holiday tradition during Barack Obama's presidency.

If Congress does not reauthorize federal unemployment programs, more than 2 million unemployed Americans will abruptly stop receiving checks on Dec. 28. It's one of the less-discussed aspects of the so-called "fiscal cliff," the moment when a host of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect at the end of the year.

"We cannot forget the human cliff looming for more than two million Americans scheduled to lose their economic lifeline during the upcoming holidays," Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said in a Monday statement.

Levin, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes and unemployment insurance, previously said the unemployment debate would not begin until after the elections. On Monday, less than a week after Democrats retained control of the White House and the U.S. Senate, Levin said dropping the benefits would "punish" workers.

"Congress must act quickly to ensure that we do not abandon those workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own," he said.

Congress has waited until the last minute to reauthorize extended unemployment insurance during the holiday seasons of each of the previous three years. Republicans have opposed keeping jobless aid without offsetting its cost via spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, but relented on that point at the end of 2010 when the benefits were paired with continuations of the Bush-era tax cuts.

A spokesman for Levin's Republican counterpart on the Ways and Means Committee suggested Tuesday there will be no quick compromise this year.

"After spending $215 billion and adding $180 billion to the debt, more spending on Federal Unemployment benefits, above and beyond what the States already spend, would have to be carefully considered during fiscal cliff talks," the spokesman said.

During every recession since the 1950s, Congress has given extra weeks of unemployment insurance to people who use up the standard six months of state benefits, and kept them in place until the national unemployment rate had fallen below 7.2 percent. (The unemployment rate currently stands at 7.9 percent.) In 2009, lawmakers pushed the total duration of benefits to an unprecedented 99 weeks. Earlier this year, congressional negotiators reduced benefits to a maximum of 73 weeks, with shorter durations in states with lower unemployment rates.

If Congress doesn't act, the Christmas cutoff will be more abrupt than in years past, when unemployment claimants have been able to collect the remaining weeks of their "tier" of federal benefits even after the program have lapsed. This year, benefits would stop completely on Dec. 28. According to House Democrats and the National Employment Law Project, 2 million federal benefits recipients would be left hanging, and so would an additional million people who will use up their state benefits in the first few months of 2013.

Debbie Spiletycz of Suffern, N.Y., fears she could be one of the 2 million people whose benefits stop before New Year's Day. She said she lost her job as a commercial lease administrator in March. She's had interviews since then, but no job offers. She said she believes members of Congress are about as sincere as human resources types who tell her to expect a call back, and then don't call.

"They don’t give a shit," Spiletycz said of lawmakers. "They don't know what it's like to live on a paycheck."

Spiletycz, 57, said she is willing to work for less money than she made before her layoff, even if it means she doesn't make more than she receives from the unemployment office. She said she resents the notion, suggested by Republicans from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney on down, that she would rather depend on the government than take responsibility for her own life.

"I'm willing to come down dramatically from what I was making because I want a job," she said. "I just want to work. I don't want that [unemployment] check."

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