Lawmakers face new fight over extending unemployment benefits

Congress is expected to pass a yearlong extension of unemployment benefits before they expire, although the process is uncertain.

Advocates of reauthorizing the program feel confident that a yearlong extension will get tucked into one of several bills that could pass by year's end — a supercommittee budget deal or a tax extenders bill that would renew the Medicare 'doc fix' along with other expiring program provisions.

Without hitching a ride on one of those vehicles, though, the measure might have to fly solo, likely igniting a heated battle between Democrats and Republicans and inevitably pushing the fight to the brink of expiration.

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"A bill will pass by the end of the year and it is being discussed in the context of the supercommittee, but it's not select committee or bust," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator with the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

"There needs to be thinking about Plan B and Plan C, too," she said. "It's an interesting little dance."

A positive sign is that while talk about the issue has been subdued, discussions are escalating on reauthorizing the federal benefits, which expire Dec. 31, Conti said.

House Democrats on the supercommittee — Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Xavier Beccera (Calif.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — have discussed an extension of unemployment insurance and support its inclusion in the deficit-reduction package, an aide told The Hill.

House Ways and Means Democrats said this week they are banking on the 12-member deficit-reduction panel including their bill, introduced Thursday, into an overall budget package.

In the past, the contentious nature of passing an extension, regardless of length, has created spirited debate, mainly over whether the $44 billion yearly cost should be offset.

This time around program advocates say they have no problem paying for the program, which helps millions of unemployed workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits, although they prefer that any offsets are pushed down the road at least three years.

Previously Democrats have argued that the cost shouldn't be covered because it negates the economic effects — in this case about $88 billion in spending, double the amount put into the program.

Some Republicans are expected to oppose extending the benefits, leading a senior Democrat to accuse them of holding the unemployed hostage.

"The GOP won't give away a card, they'll hold 6 million people hostage," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) told The Hill after the press conference.

Still, McDermott predicted an extension would eventually be approved despite a possible bumpy road to the finish.

"The bill will happen at some point," he said.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) introduced a companion measure in the Senate on Thursday along with Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

The supercommittee plan is due Nov. 23, right before Thanksgiving, and the 12 members of the secretive panel haven't been willing to provide any detail of their discussions.

There is growing skepticism that the panel will be able to produce a plan by the deadline, which could jeopardize an extension of benefits.

"Never before has Congress allowed emergency unemployment benefits to expire with such a large percentage of Americans looking for work and we must not let that happen now,” said Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee. He is the co-sponsor of legislation to extend the benefits for a year.

The measure also would relieve states that have federal unemployment insurance loans from interest charges next year, prevent higher federal unemployment taxes beginning in January on employers in insolvent states and provide a solvency bonus to states without any outstanding loans.

If a bill isn't cleared by Congress before the program expires Dec. 31, 2.1 million people could lose their benefits by mid-February, meaning 6.1 million would see their checks vanish by the end of next year, NELP has estimated.

“This is a must-pass piece of legislation,” NELP Executive Director Christine Owens said. “With economic recovery fragile and long-term unemployment an ongoing crisis for millions of Americans, we simply cannot let the federal unemployment insurance programs expire at the end of this year.  It’s a critical lifeline for so many workers and their families. It would be unconscionable for members of Congress to turn their backs on these Americans now.”

The extension covers only those who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state jobless insurance or who are working their way through the federal tiers. It doesn't extend benefits beyond 99 weeks.