Yesterday, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to provide extra weeks of federally paid-for unemployment insurance benefits for the 99ers — the pool of 1.4 million Americans workers who have exhausted their maximum weeks of federal and state benefits.
The Americans Want to Work Act brings the maximum number of weeks to 119 in states with unemployment rates above 7.5 percent, meaning 34 states and the District of Columbia would currently qualify. (As of now, the states with unemployment rates over 8 percent qualify for the federal extension.) It also bolsters a tax credit for companies that hire workers who have been unemployed for more than two months.
Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Casey (Pa.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Harry Reid (Nev.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) are cosponsors.
“Across our state, more than 35,000 people who have lost their jobs have also exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits. I know that these men and women want to work and have been trying their best to find jobs in this difficult economy,” Stabenow said in a statement. “My legislation cuts taxes for businesses that hire new workers who have been looking for work the longest. My bill also provides 20 more weeks of unemployment insurance to people in states like ours with the highest number of people out of work.”
The Tier V bill will prove popular among many, particularly the 99ers and the unemployed. But it will face a real uphill battle in the Senate. First, it needs the approval of the Senate Finance Committee, headed by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). He has previously voiced opposition to Tier V. “You can’t go on forever,” he told Bloomberg News in April. “I think 99 weeks is sufficient.”
If the bill makes it out of committee, a process that can take weeks, it will need to get through a Senate allergic to deficit spending and increasingly recalcitrant on expanding programs for the jobless. Virtually all Republicans as well as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) have indicated they will not vote for any expansion that increases the deficit. The full text of Stabenow’s bill has not yet been released, nor has the Congressional Budget Office scored it. But Stabenow’s release did not indicate the bill is offset, and cuts are increasingly hard to find. (This week, the Senate trimmed a food stamp extension to pay for a state-aid bill to keep up Medicaid funding and to save teachers’ jobs.)
Previously, Senate aides have told me that while numerous Senate Democrats support the fifth tier and other programs for the long-term unemployed, they hesitated to bring forward a bill they felt would never pass. The House, rather than expanding weeks of benefits, is looking at measures like expanding the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund.
“That was put in place after the recession hit to help states, basically to aid them in subsidizing jobs,” Ed Shelleby, spokesperson for Rep. Jim McDermott, told me. “It has hugely bipartisan support.”
Nevertheless, many labor economists feel the government needs to be doing more to help the jobless — and many legislators and Americans agree. Unemployment is worse now than it has been since the Great Depression. And the problem is not the height of the unemployment rate, but the duration of joblessness. Never before have unemployed workers been out of a job for so many weeks — a sign of fierce competition in the labor market, and the slowdown in the recovery.
The unemployed, already organized online, have recently joined with labor unions and other groups to lobby the Senate for increased benefits.
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