Prospects dim for fast renewal of jobless benefits

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Associated Press

Posted on December 9, 2013 at 6:04 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 9 at 11:33 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Prospects dimmed Monday for a quick extension of expiring unemployment benefits as Republican officials said they would not agree to include a renewal in any year-end budget deal.

Some congressional Democrats said they would continue to press to make additional benefits for jobless workers part of any deal, but it was unclear how strongly the White House would support them.

Officials provided only the most general details about the overall budget talks themselves, although they said the two negotiators, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were hoping to meet Tuesday morning and seal an agreement.

If so, it is expected to have only a marginal impact on federal deficits, and instead is designed to ease the impact of across-the-board spending cuts over two years.

To accomplish that, Murray and Ryan, who chair Congress' budget committees, have been discussing proposals to raise spending across a range of programs by between $60 billion and $70 billion. To offset the cost, they are considering reducing spending or raising fees elsewhere in the budget.

Among the items under consideration is an increase in the federal airline security fee that each passenger pays. Numerous officials have said Ryan and Murray also are discussing a proposal for federal workers to pay more of their own retirement costs, an item that was contained in rival budgets proposed by President Barack Obama and passed by the Republican-controlled House earlier this year.

Other possible elements of a year-end deal are short-term provisions to prevent a spike in milk prices and avoid the threat of a deep drop in the fees paid to doctors who treat Medicare patients

Despite efforts by Democrats, an extension of unemployment benefits is unlikely to be included.

Without legislation, benefits for 1.3 million workers unemployed for longer than 26 weeks will expire on Dec. 28. An additional 1.9 million of the nation's jobless are predicted to experience the same fate in the first half of 2014.

The cost of extending the program is about $25 billion for one year.

Republicans have balked at extending the program, noting that unemployment has fallen steadily in the past year, and arguing that weekly unemployment checks are a poor economic stimulus.

Democrats quickly rebutted Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during the day for saying in a weekend television interview that an extension of the federal program would be "a disservice to these workers."

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Paul said, "When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our — in our economy."

But Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said, "A disservice is essentially cutting them off on Dec. 28. They are looking for a job. They were laid off through no fault of their own. What do you do? Just give them the cold shoulder on Dec. 28? That's a disservice to humanity in my judgment," he said on MSNBC.

Additionally, Congressional Research Service statistics put the maximum duration for benefits at 73 weeks, not the 99 that was the case a year ago.

Democrats undermined their own political case for an extension last week when the party's leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, backed off an initial threat to oppose any budget deal that didn't provide for one.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said at the same time that Obama wants lawmakers to extend the program, but added, "The vehicle that they use to do that is less important than the fact that they do it."

Even a relatively modest budget agreement is far from a certainty, with one prominent tea party-aligned organization announcing it will likely oppose any deal to emerge from secretive negotiations.

"Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions," said the group, which was influential earlier this fall with tea party-backed lawmakers who pushed Republicans in the direction of a partial government shutdown.

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