Will Congress Extend Unemployment Benefits Beyond 99 Weeks?

Will Congress Extend Unemployment Benefits Beyond 99 Weeks?

Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who blocked Democrats' efforts to reauthorize existing unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, says that Congress will eventually give the unemployed another month of benefits.

"We have 99 weeks of unemployment compensation out there right now -- and we're gonna move that to 103, and then we're going to move it even further," Coburn told a reporter asking about the practical implications of his obstruction on Friday.

Last week, Coburn prevented Democrats from extending eligibility for Emergency Unemployment Compensation to May 5. The program, which provides up to 53 weeks in four "tiers" of federally-funded benefits in addition to up to 46 weeks of state benefits, will lapse on April 5, while Congress is in recess (it's likely the disruption will be minimal despite the lapse).

But Democratic and Republican leadership offices in the House and Senate were unaware of any plan to add a new tier of benefits. Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, told HuffPost that the idea of an additional tier has no traction even among the most liberal lawmakers.

"When it has come up to congressional offices, they said 'We're not there yet, there's not the political will for a Tier 5,'" Conti said. "If one of his justifications for his heartless action is legislation that doesn't even exist, it seems to me his objections are even more specious than we thought."

Coburn and his Republican colleagues insist that they wholeheartedly support unemployment benefits. They argue that the measure to temporarily extend eligibility for the enhanced benefits will add $9.2 billion to the $1.5 trillion projected deficit. Last week, the GOP wanted to pass the measure but pay for it with stimulus funds, an idea Democrats rejected before voting to adjourn. One of the most important things about unemployment benefits is that they stimulate the economy because the money is desperately needed and immediately spent; progressive economists say offsetting the spending also offsets its stimulative effect.

An additional tier of benefits is an entirely separate matter. But even with all the debate surrounding the benefits, there's little disagreement between the parties that it's good policy to extend a lifeline to laid-off workers in a time of high national unemployment. Coburn could be right that the lifeline will be lengthened.

"It's not surprising leadership offices don't want to show their hand but time will tell," wrote a Coburn spokesman in an email to HuffPost. "Dr. Coburn's core argument is that Congress could easily find offsets to pay for this extension, which is the right thing to do for the unemployed and future generations who are burdened with debt. If some benefits expire on Wednesday it will be because House leaders rejected a deal supported by Senate leaders, and because Senator Reid choose to hang out with the gun lobby on Saturday instead of holding a cloture vote."

The spokesman attached a photo from the Las Vegas Sun of Reid firing his own personal 12-gauge shotgun at a National Rifle Association fundraiser in Nevada. All Republicans voted against Reid's motion to adjourn on Thursday. (Of course, it's a "conditional adjournment," meaning Reid could call everyone back into town, something nobody at all expects to happen even though several Republican senators said they didn't think they could win a cloture vote on the bill.)

CLICK HERE to hear what Coburn said.

The measure Coburn is referring to in the second half of the clip would extend EUC eligibility through the rest of 2010. The House passed a similar measure with a different funding source, which means it requires yet another Senate vote -- the bill would not give the long-term unemployed more than 99 weeks of benefits. Congress most recently added extra weeks of benefits in November.

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