Will Congress Get it Together and Pass an Unemployment Insurance Extension?

By Seth Freed Wessler May 25, 2010

The House was expected to vote today to extend unemployment benefits until the end of the year. But according the the Ways and Means Committee press office this morning, the spending measure will not make it to the floor until Wednesday at the earliest. If Congress fails to pass an extension of the unemployment program before June 2nd, an estimated 1.2 million unemployed Americans will be cut off from the program. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), an advocacy group that tracks the impact of the extensions, said in a statement Monday: “Here we are, five days out from the Memorial Day recess, and Congress has yet to act on one of the most crucial pieces of legislation affecting the unemployed in 2010.” A House Rules Committee hearing last night that would have moved the bill to the floor descended into partisan back-and-forth, which ultimately delayed the movement of the bill. If the House passes the extension package, which, in addition to extending jobless benefits, would also continue the Temporary Aid to Needy Families Emergency Fund and extend the COBRA insurance program for the unemployed, it would be a major step forward after consecutive months of partisan bickering about one-month unemployment insurance extensions. Last month, hundreds of thousands were threatened with a temporary loss of benefits after Republicans blocked an extension and then left for Congressional recess. This time, it appears the House is ready to pass a more lasting solution that would avoid monthly battles over the fate of the jobless program in future months. But even if the House passes the extension today, the Senate may be a more difficult sell. While the Senate is expected to vote on the extension on Friday, Republicans, and now some Democrats, are again threatening to block it again. Because Congress is scheduled to close shop at the end of the week for the Memorial Day recess, failure to extend the program the this week would delay passage until June 7th at the earliest. According to NELP, 300,000 jobless Americans will reach the end of the benefits on June 12, the Friday after Congress returns. Spending included in the vote that would continue the Temporary Aid for Needy Families Emergency Fund, which is scheduled to expire in September, has also drawn attacks from Republicans. They claim the TANF spending flies in the face of the central components of 1996 welfare reform. Apparently, among those who voted on the GOP’s "YouCut" website, which lets visitors choose which government programs should get the ax, the TANF Fund got the most clicks. This is no surprise considering a Republican representative called the job creation and family support program "a crazy one that actually incentivizes people not to work." The TANF Emergency Fund is scheduled to create 185,000 jobs by the end of September. We’ll have to wait another day to see if the House will pass the benefit extensions and at least three days for the Senate. In the midst of some of the most intense partisan rancor in recent memory, spending on social programs is bound to be contentious. But as Congress continues with its ideological tantrums, regular people, who are still facing 10 percent unemployment, will be the first to suffer. And for those communities hit hardest by the recession — communities of color and people who were poor before the downturn — continued failure to pass benefit extensions could be catastrophic. Here’s what folks on the street had to say to Congress last month: