WASHINGTON — An estimated 212,500 people across the United States are in danger of exhausting their federal unemployment benefits this week because a Republican senator has blocked Congress from considering an extension.
The House of Representatives approved the funding last month, but it stalled in the Senate after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., insisted that the bill be paid for.
"Any person with a thimble full of common sense could identify $9.2 billion of waste in our more than $3.5 trillion budget," he said. "Yet Congress finds this task so painful they would rather leave town and let certain unemployment benefits expire."
It's the second time is as many months that a Republican has led an effort to bar the Senate from considering an extension of jobless benefits. While the money is expected eventually to be paid retroactively, the delay creates a host of problems for people who are out of work and the agencies that assist them.
"Lost in this discussion is that these are people who became unemployed through no fault of their own, and they are searching for jobs in the worst job market in years," said Michael Thurmond, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor.
"People don't know how to organize their lives," lamented Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project in Oakland, Calif., which studies job-related issues and estimated how many people the delay affects.
If benefits are going to stop temporarily or be curtailed, should the unemployed sign up for classes? Sell their homes? How do they pay for groceries?
"They don't know, unless Congress continues the program through the end of the year," Emsellem said. "That's the most disturbing part."
The project estimated that because of the delay, 1 million people risk losing benefits this month.
Bradenton, Fla., resident Peter Barrie, for instance, could lose about $300 a week when his unemployment benefits expire in two weeks. As a result, Barrie said, he and his wife will have to cut back on groceries, utility use, entertainment expenses and travel.
The 66-year-old has been searching for employment for 18 months since he was laid off from his teaching position. Barrie said he'd applied for everything from education jobs to working in fast food restaurants.
"In the last 18 months, I've probably sent out over 300 resumes," Barrie said. "If the economy doesn't improve, myself and others like me would hope that they would pass an extension."
The latest delay comes as the Labor Department reported Thursday that 460,000 workers filed new claims for jobless benefits last week, up 18,000 from the previous week.
The jobless aid extension is part of a $9.2 billion package that would fund a host of government programs for about a month, including payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, the National Flood Insurance Program and health insurance assistance for jobless people. Lawmakers also are considering a measure that would extend key programs through the end of 2010.
Many of the programs expired at the end of March, and authority for aiding some people who've been out of work for an extended period expired Monday. Congress left Washington on March 26 for a recess that's scheduled to end next Monday.
Coburn's objection has triggered a classic debate over what's more crucial: funding the programs as emergencies, which has been done routinely, or finding offsetting cuts or revenues.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., used the same argument in March when he blocked a similar extension. Bunning relented under pressure from Republican leaders.
Democrats, and some Republicans, concede that the federal budget deficit must be cut, but not like this, not with unemployment at 9.7 percent last month.
"Unemployment compensation is not a sweet deal," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. "You don't get paid a great deal with unemployment, but maybe just enough to get by so your house isn't one more foreclosed property."
It's widely expected that no one ultimately will lose benefits, since they're expected to be funded retroactively, but thousands are unlikely to get checks this week.
In Georgia, 5,000 people lost benefits coverage when the last extension expired. State officials estimate that for every week the stalemate continues, an additional 5,000 residents will lose coverage.
In Kentucky, 6,000 people lost coverage this week because of the delay. Nearly 130,000 Kentuckians are receiving benefits through a federal extension program and will exhaust their benefits during the next three months unless there's an extension.
Like many states, Kentucky, with a 10.9 percent unemployment rate, is grappling with a high volume of unemployment benefits requests. Officials still are telling eligible jobless people to submit claims, hoping that Congress passes an extension soon.
The state's Office of Employment and Training is streaming the following message on its Web site: "Due to the volume of unemployment insurance checks being requested early in the week, the printing process is delayed. If you request your check Sunday or Monday, your check could be delayed longer than if you wait until later in the week. Fewer checks are requested later in the week and are printed and mailed more quickly."
In Kansas, officials also saw problems. "We haven't yet begun to see recovery in the labor market," Kansas Labor Secretary Jim Garner said. "That makes these extended benefits critical to helping unemployed workers and their families survive until they can find new employment."
(Gagliano, of The Bradenton Herald, reported from Bradenton, Fla. David Goldstein contributed to this article.)
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