Congress Takes Long Weekend, Lets Jobless Benefits Hang

Washington – Congress headed home Thursday for a four-day break, after failing again to extend jobless benefits for an estimated 325,000 people, fund summer jobs for at-risk youths or help newly laid-off people pay for health care.

“These are really pressing things, and we want Congress to stay, but it falls on deaf ears,” said Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group.

Funding for extended unemployment benefits ran out June 2 while Congress was in the middle of a 10-day Memorial Day break. The House of Representatives had voted to continue the benefits until Nov. 30, but the Senate hadn’t.

The Senate returned Monday night, debated the provisions Tuesday and Wednesday, found widespread disagreement and spent much of Thursday on an unrelated energy bill.

Senators agreed to resume voting next Tuesday. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the break had been “long planned.”

Meanwhile, the National Employment Law Project estimated that 325,000 people won’t be able to collect benefits. This is the third time that Congress has missed on a deadline for extending the benefits; it’s expected that they’ll paid retroactively.

In addition, people laid off after June 1 won’t be eligible for government help with their health insurance, and the government’s program to fund summer jobs — which had been expected to provide an estimated 330,000 jobs for at-risk youths — remains unfunded and thus stalled.

Senate Democratic leaders have included the benefits in a $140 billion emergency spending bill, but moderate Democrats are concerned that the bill includes too much deficit spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the legislation would increase the budget deficit by $78.6 billion over the next 10 years.

One flash point is a plan to provide $24.2 billion to help states with Medicaid expenses. The governors of 47 states have signed a letter urging Congress to help.

The bills also are caught in partisan wrangling.

“Because of the Republicans, those benefits have expired,” Reid said, “and so has our patience for their excuses.”

Republicans counter that while they support help for the unemployed, they want programs paid for, not added to the deficit.

“Everything that’s being done out here right now is killing jobs, raising taxes and adding to the debt,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

It’s unclear whether any of this will reverberate in congressional campaigns, said Evans Witt, the chief executive officer of Princeton Survey Research Associates. The oil spill and the economy dominate the news, he said, and “all of us have only so many things we can worry about.”

In addition, he noted, the unemployed tend to vote in smaller numbers than those with jobs do. In November 2008, the U.S. Commerce Department found, 54.8 percent of unemployed people voted, compared with 65.9 percent of people with jobs.