Starting Monday, more than 200,000 unemployed Americans won't see jobless benefits they're expecting because Congress failed to act.
The interruption in benefits will last two weeks at a minimum, according to Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since lawmakers return from spring break on April 12.
As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.
Senate Republicans said the $9.3 billion, 30-day extension preferred by Democrats should be paid for, while Democrats said the bill's cost didn't need to be offset because the program was "emergency spending."
Under the jobless benefits program that ends Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren't readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit checks.
"Odds are they have burned through savings, already asked for loans and gifts from family and friends if needed, so going for two weeks without a paycheck, especially if those two weeks are a time when rent or mortgage is due, is going to be hard," Conti said.
Those who will miss unemployment checks may see them in the future.
Senate Democrats said they'll try to pass an extension of the program that can be applied retroactively once Congress is back in session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has scheduled a vote on cloture to end debate on the short-term extension for April 12.
Democratic and Republican leaders both claim the higher ground, confident that the public will blame the other side for causing the gap.
Democrats blamed Republicans, who objected to a quick Senate vote on a short-term unemployment benefits extension, for blocking relief to those seeking work.
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Republicans said House Democrats are to blame. When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other conservative GOP lawmakers made clear they wouldn't allow swift passage of the 30-day extension if its cost wasn't offset, Senate GOP and Democratic leaders discussed a brief, one-week extension. But House Democrats said they wanted the one-month extension.
Senate Republican aides sent a memo to reporters with media reports suggesting the short-term deal was "quashed by Democrats."
Coburn said he and other GOP lawmakers were willing to work through the recess to find a way to extend benefits without increasing the $12.8 trillion federal debt.
"I think it would have been a good idea to stay here and work this out," Coburn told reporters. "Unfortunately, we chose not to do that... because we didn't want to make difficult choices about where we cut spending and eliminate additions to the debt."
Senior Democrats said their enthusiasm for Friday's Labor Department report showing a net 162,000 jobs created in March was tempered by the fact that 15 million Americans were still unemployed.
"With so many families in Nevada and across the country still struggling to find work and make ends meet, it is imperative that Senate Republicans stop blocking the extension of critical unemployment insurance and health benefits," Reid said in a statement. "Their obstruction endangers the economic certainty of millions of families."
The AFL-CIO said it will be "doing events, writing letters, making phone calls" this week to press Republicans to go along with an extension.
"One thing is crystal clear, Republican obstruction is going to cost hundreds of thousands of working families their benefits," said Eddie Vale, spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "So we will be loudly and publicly calling them out."
The partisan debate over jobless benefits and their cost will likely last beyond next week. Senate and House Democrats are planning to extend the emergency unemployment program and increased COBRA benefits to the end of 2010. The Senate version, which also included extensions of business tax breaks, cost about $150 billion, more than $100 billion of which wasn't offset.