In Congress, it's decision time on long-term unemployment benefits

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A15

As the Senate this week considers a "jobs bill" to reduce unemployment, lawmakers will have to decide whether to continue an unprecedented change in how the country treats people who are out of work, which was quietly approved last year.

Through a series of laws, including the $787 billion economic stimulus, people in states with high rates of unemployment are eligible to get jobless benefits for up to 99 weeks, an all-time high. But Congress did this in a piecemeal fashion, and it must pass legislation to keep benefits going for an estimated 1 million people who would otherwise become ineligible at the end of the month.

The Senate approved a measure that extended benefits from 79 to 99 weeks in a unanimous vote last year, but GOP lawmakers have not yet said whether they will continue to support the benefits, particularly if they are included in a larger jobs package. And some Democrats favor extending the benefits only temporarily, while another bloc wants an extension that would last the rest of the year.

Unemployment benefits usually last just 26 weeks and have been extended to about 70 weeks in previous economic slowdowns. But this time, Congress not only has extended them but also is spending more than $13 billion each month to fund them, because the federal government is taking on all the cost after the 26 weeks, which states pay for. About 12 million Americans are receiving benefits.

The benefits pay on average 36 percent of a person's salary from the job that was lost, and the average weekly amount of benefits is about $325. Some economists have said that unemployment benefits can lead people to wait longer to find full-time work. But given how long it is taking for the economy to turn around and for employers to start hiring again, few lawmakers in either party have expressed much reluctance to extend the benefits.

"We have unprecedented long-term unemployment," said Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project, which is advocating expanded benefits. "Record unemployment is not the right term; it far surpasses any previous period of unemployment, which is why we need these extra weeks of benefits."

The squeaky wheel . . .

Is being controversial the best way to keep your seat in Congress?

In 2008, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) barely won his seat over a longtime GOP incumbent, pulled into office by President Obama's strong showing in the Sunshine State. It also helped that Grayson, who made millions as a plaintiffs' lawyer before entering politics, pumped more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign.

Unlike most freshman Democrats, Grayson has not shied away from calling attention to himself. He is perhaps the most prolific liberal bomb-thrower in the House. He has decried the Republicans as offering a health-care proposal akin to "Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly," referred to one of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's advisers as a "K Street whore," and described conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh as a "hypocrite loser." And when it comes to votes, Grayson has supported health-care reform and climate-change legislation -- bills many Democrats in close districts opposed.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are aggressively looking to defeat him and take his Orlando-based seat. But they will again be facing a very well-financed candidate: Grayson has raised more than all but five House candidates over the past year -- $2.4 million -- and that is without opening his own checkbook.

Liberal activists across the country have rallied behind the Florida Democrat and flooded him with donations. Grayson's staff sent out a memo last week touting the fundraising, declaring it "clean money, from people who appreciate a congressman with guts."

But Grayson's high-profile actions have risks. Unlike former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who rose to prominence and online fundraising success in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary campaign by casting himself as a liberal truth teller, or Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who raised the most campaign money of any House candidate after shouting "You lie!" as Obama spoke to Congress in September, Grayson needs moderate voters to win. And Republicans are confident that his comments are chasing them away.

"He seems to feed off negative attention, rather than be chastened by it," said Andy Seré, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "For the sake of central Floridians, he should stop, but for the sake of us taking back the seat in November, we encourage him to continue."

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