Lawmakers facing new pressure to extend unemployment benefits

Groups backing an extension of unemployment benefits have launched a new round of lobbying to convince Congress to extend federal benefits to the long-term jobless.

A coalition of advocates including the National Employment Law Project (NELP) held more than 40 meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill during the first week of the lame-duck session to make their pitch for a $30 billion extension of the program.

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The assorted labor union, civil rights and anti-poverty groups face a tough path to winning the extension at a time when lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce the budget deficit. Lawmakers started talks at the White House on Friday to prevent the nation from going over a so-called “fiscal cliff.”

But the groups are hopeful they can win another extension, and received a shot of confidence this week when Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said stimulus measures should be included in any deficit-reduction package.

"People get it, understand why it's important and why it could be so bad for their states," Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator with NELP, told The Hill on Friday.

"We're sensing a lot of support."

Still, Conti and other supporters are looking at the issue in the context of tax and spending that remain a top priority for lawmakers.

The groups are pressing for a one-year extension of legislation approved last February when Congress extended a payroll tax cut. The extension would provide a maximum of 47 weeks of federal benefits for those unemployed for more than six months.

Combined with state-level benefits, the long-term unemployed would have a minimum of 34 weeks of benefits and a maximum of 73 weeks.

Without action, 2.1 million people would be cut off from benefits on Dec. 29, the groups argue.

While the $30 billion price tax is expensive, supporters argue the cost could go down as state unemployment rates fall. The length of federal benefits are linked to individual jobless rates in states.

Some economists argue extending the benefits is a cheap price to pay given the likelihood that costs will fall as state jobless rates drop.

“I would extend the emergency UI program as it is currently configured as it will fade away on its own as the very long-term unemployed exhaust their benefits and the economy improves and unemployment declines below the program’s thresholds,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics in an email to The Hill.

He said about 30,000 people are falling off the rolls each week because of the dropping rates.

Zandi also argues that if the economy gets worse — a particularly strong possibility if Congress takes no action to prevent tax hikes and spending cuts from starting next year — the program could be particularly important.

“If the economy doesn’t improve as anticipated, then this will be an important program to have in place to offset any weakness,” he said.

A study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute this week determined that continuing the extensions through next year would generate spending to support 400,000 jobs.

Without a continuation of the program, the economy would lose those jobs.

The report also estimates that the $30 billion would increase consumer spending and expand the economy by $48 billion, or about 0.3 percent.