Congress Passes Two-Month Renewal of Unemployment Insurance


House leaders, acceding to mounting public outcry over their apparent willingness to cut off unemployment benefits to millions of unemployed job-seekers during the holiday season, agreed late Thursday to accept a compromise two-month extension.  The bill passed the House and Senate early today and was promptly signed by President Obama.  Along with continuing current provisions of federal unemployment insurance, the measure extends last year's payroll tax reduction, TANF aid for needy families and medical reimbursement rates for physicians serving Medicare patients.  House and Senate leaders in both parties are appointing members to a conference committee, which will be tasked with reaching a year-long extension measure when they return after the holidays.

A short-term two-month compromise extension was agreed to last Saturday 89-10 in the Senate, with large majorities in both parties approving the measure.  That came after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had refused to allow a vote in the Senate on a House-passed bill that would have slashed federal unemployment benefits in every state, and cut more than half those benefits in states with the highest unemployment rates.  The House bill also contained provisions to facilitate drug-testing of unemployment claimants, along with a host of schemes designed to erect more odious barriers to benefits for eligible workers.

A Senate vote on the House bill being deemed politically unappealing -- amid fears from Sen. McConnell that members of his own caucus would have to oppose it -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and McConnell then agreed to a two-month extension through February, allowing lawmakers the time to work out provisions for a year-long renewal.  But House Republicans, seeing their way being met with a firm "no way," refused for days to approve the Senate compromise -- threatening to let unemployment benefits for millions expire December 31st.  Finally, late yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) relented, clearing the way for today's approval.

In a statement Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) said:

“The House GOP’s parliamentary gamesmanship created needless anxiety for millions of long-term unemployed Americans who count on unemployment insurance as a critical lifeline for survival.

“Unemployed Americans around the nation are relieved that House leaders have finally relented and approved a two-month extension. The modest benefits this extension sustains will not transform the holidays into a bounty of riches for unemployed workers, but at least they will ensure that workers are able to celebrate the holidays with their families with some small measure of security.

“When Congress returns, it should quickly turn to the task of approving a longer-term renewal of federal unemployment insurance, absent the unnecessary, demeaning and burdensome conditions and restrictions on both unemployed workers and state agencies that the House has previously proposed. And most important of all, Congress and the President should devote their time and attention to rebuilding America’s economy with good jobs for all who want and need to work.”

So, over the holidays, we have won a brief respite from our struggle.  But the fight for a full, robust renewal of unemployment insurance through 2012 will continue, as will our efforts to preserve and strengthen this vital social insurance lifeline for all Americans.  Thank you to everyone who has helped gain this short-term victory -- with your stories, your emails, your phone calls, your voices.  Fresh from the knowledge that our combined efforts can, in fact, overcome seemingly intractable obstructions, we will return to fight on for America's unemployed workers.

For the moment though during the holidays, we can rest our voices -- knowing that soon we will need to raise them again.



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