The nation's lawmakers this week are debating whether to further extend benefits to long-term unemployed Americans. And much like any legislation being muscled through Congress these days, the divisions over the bill's contents fall along ideological lines. More liberal members want to bolster the nation's safety net and establish jobs programs, while conservatives fret about adding a projected $123 billion to the nation's ever-growing debt.
The $192 billion bill currently making its way through Congress, known as the "American Jobs and Closing Loopholes Act," provides $47 billion for unemployment benefits. Jobless workers in some states are currently eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The bill would extend those benefits for the rest of the year, helping to keep money flowing into the wallets of as many as 5 million Americans who would otherwise see their benefits disappear, starting June 2.
But the bill won't extend a lifeline to those who have or soon will cross the 99-week threshold. There's no proposal to give such workers additional benefits.
Leadership in both houses is seeking a vote before Congress adjourns for its Memorial Day recess. The House of Representatives could vote on the bill as soon as Wednesday, while the Senate is expected to take the measure up on Friday.
House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said he expected the chamber to pass the measure later this week, Reuters reported. "I think we'll have the votes," Hoyer said at a news conference. Pressed to clarify, he said, "We'll have the votes."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to hold that chamber in session through the weekend to ensure the bill passes before the week-long break. "We must pass the new jobs bill this week, in the next few days," Reid said at a news conference.
Extending Existing Benefits
The bill would also extend eligibility for laid-off workers to receive a subsidy to help pay to maintain employer-sponsored health plans, through the federal COBRA program. The subsidy covers the cost of 65% of the premium of laid-off workers for up to 15 months. COBRA benefits typically run out after 18 months.
Congress last extended eligibility for the COBRA subsidy in April for a month, meaning those who lost their jobs on or after June 1 would be ineligible for the benefit. The pending bill would extend eligibility to the end of the year at a cost of $7.8 billion.
A chunk of the bill's funds, $89 billion, goes to extend current payment rates to doctors under Medicare and Medicaid through the end of the year. Without the funding, health providers would see those payments cut by 21%. The legislation also provides $24 billion to continue federal aid to states hard-hit by the economic downturn to fund Medicaid programs through June 2011.
Liberal lawmakers are also pressing for a $100 billion bill that would provide $23 billion to states to prevent teacher layoffs, according to The Washington Post. It would also provide more than $70 billion to allow state and local governments to hire workers directly over the next few years to provide jobs. But passage of the provision isn't expected.