Battle brewing over renewing benefits for long-term unemployed

Another battle is brewing on Capitol Hill over renewing a federal program that provides jobless benefits to more than 1 million long-term unemployed workers.

If Congress fails to take action, and the program expires at the end of the year, 1.3 million would be cut off from the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), which is the next step after unemployed workers exhaust state-level benefits.

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Advocates on and off Capitol Hill are ramping up pressure on Congress to pass a yearlong reauthorization of the program, which is estimated to cost about $24 billion.

Two reports out this week — one from Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee and the other from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) — show that failing to reauthorize the program would affect 2 million unemployed workers by March and 3 million by June. 

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) is leading the charge on the effort with hopes that an agreement could be reached by the end of the month. 

"We shouldn't leave it to Christmas Eve," he said.

Levin, who said he plans to talk next week with fellow Michigan lawmaker — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R) — about how to proceed, said the best vehicle for a reauthorization is in any budget deal that might emerge from a House-Senate conference.

"I think that is the best avenue," he told The Hill on Friday.

Levin met with 15 unemployed workers in Michigan on Friday and suggested that anyone intent on opposing the reauthorization do the same.

"They need to hear the stories and then try to refute the notions that many who get benefits are not interested in working," he said.

"People told me today, 'I want a job.' "

Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at NELP, argues that the labor market's metrics clearly warrant another authorization.

"The employment picture is not changing much," she said.

"All of the indicators around long-term unemployment are the same."

Conti said she is already canvassing Capitol Hill with the aim of continuing a "very vibrant program."

In those early talks she is finding a familiar political divide — Democrats who are firmly behind continuing the program while Republicans want it to end.

"We'll see where the politics take us the next couple of months," she said.

Democrats might have another heavy lift in convincing spending-cut focused Republicans to continue paying for the program, despite high unemployment rates still plaguing many states.

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee wrote in an Oct. 30 blog post that the program is at the heart of the lackluster labor market recovery.

A House aide said while the panel hasn't seen a proposal from the Obama administration or Democrats to reauthorize and pay for the program, they are willing to look at one should it emerge.

Republicans are expected to look closely at the program's more than five-year run and $252 billion price tag.

Still, the extended program has helped 24 million with the average of 38 weeks of benefits, according to the GOP's post.

On average, it takes most workers about 36 weeks to bounce back from a job loss and find new work, easily exceeding the maximum of 26 weeks of benefits provided by most states.

The EUC program was first authorized in 2008 when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent and has been reauthorized or expanded 11 times — most recently on Jan. 2 — when it was extended until the end of the year.

But in two of the past continuations — February 2012 and in the January "fiscal cliff" deal — benefits have been gradually curtailed as jobless rates drop in states.

To that end, since March 2012, the average number of long-term unemployed receiving EUC benefits has declined 50 percent, twice the rate of decline in the number of long-term unemployed workers, according to NELP's report.

In September, 1.4 million workers, or only 34 percent of all the long-term unemployed, received federal unemployment benefits, down from about 2.2 million workers a year ago.

Even as the economy has improved and the unemployment rate has fallen, there are still 4.1 million workers who have been out of work for six months or longer.

Under current law, the program provides four levels of benefits.

All states, except North Carolina, receive 14 weeks, then states with unemployment rates at least 6 percent, which is 36 states, get another 14 weeks.

For those states with a least 7 percent unemployment, 27 states according to latest figures, there is another nine weeks.

The final level provides for 10 more weeks of benefits for the two states where the jobless rate is at or above 9 percent.

During the height of the recession, unemployed workers could earn upward of 99 weeks of benefits.

The national unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in October.