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Preparing for a Harder Unemployment Fight

Over the past year, Democrats in Congress have fought three times to reauthorize federally extended unemployment benefits, which provide up to 99 weeks of unemployment insurance to millions of jobless workers. Each time, Republicans have put up resistance, arguing that Democrats need to pay for the benefits by cutting spending elsewhere, rather than adding to the deficit. Each time, that has led to a standoff. This summer, more than two million Americans lost their expected unemployment benefits as the two parties bickered.

Now, it needs to happen again. Federally extended benefits start to lapse at the end of November. The unemployment rate has not declined — indeed, it has remained at or above 9.4 percent for the last 17 months, and nearly 15 million Americans are unemployed — and economists and labor experts are urging Congress to reauthorize the benefits.

But the fight will be uphill, as Democrats will be weaker after the election and want to pass a tax compromise and other pieces of controversial legislation during the lame duck session. On top of that, due to the break for campaigning and the Thanksgiving holiday, Democrats might have as few as five legislative days to pass the benefits before they start expiring. (Last time, it took seven weeks.)

In response, the National Employment Law Project is going on the offensive, relaunching its website unemployedworkers.org and calling attention to the issue. “[W]e intend to prevent any cut offs or lapses this November by partnering with mobilized workers, supporters and other advocates to put unemployment insurance at the top of Congress’ to-do list when it reconvenes,” Christine Owens, NELP’s executive director, said in a statement. “Unemployment benefits have kept 3.3 million American families — including 1.5 million children — from falling into poverty in 2009 alone. With the holiday season approaching, it would be especially cruel to families and bad for businesses to cut off these benefits.”

But Democratic aides are already nervous about the partisan deadlock and the time crunch — with some describing the Senate’s failure to pass an extension before benefits start lapsing as almost inevitable. “We don’t want to keep getting people’s hopes up,” one without permission to speak on the record said. “It is very frustrating.”

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