Sen. Baucus makes eleventh-hour push for extended unemployment package

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced legislation Monday night that would provide long-term unemployed workers with benefits through the end of next year, with the program expected to lapse Tuesday. 

Baucus told The Hill Monday night he wants to move quickly on the measure and "will try every way I can to get this passed."   

Whether the bill is pushed through as a stand-alone or as part of a larger tax or other legislative package, the federal program that provides jobless benefits for those whose 26 weeks of state benefits have ended, up to 99 weeks in states with the highest levels of unemployment, will expire Tuesday, affecting 800,000 by the end of next week and 2 million by the end of December. 

The bill, which isn't paid for, is estimated to cost about $56.4 billion, slightly below other estimates of between $60 billion and $65 billion, or about $5 billion a month. The Baucus bill would cost about $4.33 billion per month. 

Baucus said the measure would provide the best "economic stimulus" heading into the Christmas holidays. A recent Labor Department report shows that for every dollar spent on unemployment insurance, two dollars are reinvested into the economy. 

In the past, shorter extensions have struggled to gain enough support, especially from Republicans and some Democrats who argue that the bill should be offset so it doesn't add to the deficit. Senate Republicans held up a bill for nearly two months during the summer. 

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on Monday stuck with his argument that the bill should be paid for, while also expressing concern about the proposed length. 

"I think that there's a point in which, and I don't think it's now, that you just can't keep extending," Nelson told The Hill. "At some point, you can't keep adding to the debt."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voiced a similar sentiment on Monday, saying she might support a paid-for measure but also is concerned about a yearlong extension.  

"I'll have to see, I really think it should be paid for," she said. "There's also a limit to how long we can keep extending unemployment if the unemployment rate is falling. It's certainly important that we pay for it." 

Economists and the Federal Reserve have said they expect the unemployment rate to remain high through next year, the main reason behind the push for an extension through the end of 2011. 

The White House also is pushing for an extension that runs through the end of next year. 

Last week, the Federal Reserve said the unemployment rate will probably only fall from its current 9.6 percent rate to about 9 percent by the end of 2011. By the 2012 elections it should be down to about 8 percent, a slower decline than previously estimated by the central bank. 

During debates on past extensions, Republicans have pushed to pay for extended unemployment benefits, including using unspent stimulus money. Democrats have argued that extending the benefits has historically been considered emergency spending and say offsetting them negates their economic stimulus factor.

During the past 60 years, the highest unemployment rate at which federal unemployment benefits have been cut off was 7.2 percent, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Earlier Monday, 27 Senate Democrats called for a one-year extension of the program in a letter Monday to Baucus and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

"As our nation continues to battle high unemployment rates, we must act immediately to continue vital safety net coverage for those most in need," the letter said. 

Long-term renewal of the federal programs "are necessary to keep out economy on the road to recovery as well as to keep food on the table and a roof over the head of families across America," the letter said.

House Democrats tried to push through a three-month extension right before the Thanksgiving recess but the bill didn't get the two-thirds needed to pass.