WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats are discussing their strategy for reauthorizing extended unemployment insurance on Tuesday as the expiration date for the jobless aid is fast approaching.
Neither the House nor the Senate will be in session next week, aides say, so extended unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless will need to be reauthorized this week before they expire on Nov. 30.
Two million people could prematurely lose their benefits by New Year's Day, according to the National Employment Law Project. Currently five million people are receiving aid under two federally-funded programs for the long-term unemployed.
Yet no clear path forward has emerged in Congress for reauthorizing those programs. Aides have floated the idea of coupling the benefits with a reauthorization of the expiring Bush-era tax cuts for the top two percent of earners.
"I support extending unemployment benefits whichever way we can do it," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told HuffPost before heading into a weekly caucus lunch with other Democrats.
Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who sided with Republicans when they blocked the previous reauthorization for nearly two months this summer, said he doesn't love the tax cut deal.
"That's a mistake," said Nelson, who has joined the GOP in opposing the extended benefits unless their deficit impact is offset with spending cuts. "Unless unemployment is paid for, I can't support it."
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(Nelson and Republicans do not insist on offsetting the deficit impact of tax cuts for the rich, estimated to be near $700 billion. The progressive Economic Policy Institute puts the cost of a full year's worth of extended unemployment benefits at $65 billion.)
"I think what we want to do is not give $700 billion in tax breaks to the richest people in this country and cut back on the needs of Americans who are really really hurting," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) before meeting with his colleagues. "I'm walking into the room, those are the things I'm going to fight for."
A lobbyist who has been pushing for a year-long reauthorization said Democratic leadership sees tying unemployment to the tax cuts as an effective strategy. "Leadership is very aware of the beautiful symmetry of tax cuts for millionaires doesn't need to be offset but $293 a week for the long-term unemployed does."
Aides have said it's not likely a deal on unemployment will be sorted out this week, meaning a lapse is highly likely. It would be the fourth lapse in a year. People who missed checks during the previous lapses were paid retroactively when Congress got the job done.
The programs needing reauthorization kick in after a layoff victim's initial six months of state benefits are exhausted. If the benefits lapse, people whose state benefits end after Nov. 30 will be ineligible for the additional 73 weeks of benefits granted to people laid off closer to the beginning of the recession.
State workforce agencies have made it through some of briefer lapses without a major interruption in benefits, but NELP estimates that this time, 800,000 people in the federally-funded "Extended Benefits" program, which offers 13 or 20 weeks, depending on the state, will almost immediately stop receiving checks when the program expires.
People receiving benefits in any of the four "tiers" of federally-funded "Emergency Unemployment Compensation," which provides up to 53 weeks of aid, will be unable to move to the next tier or to EB once their current tier expires.