The Senate is expected to approve a bipartisan proposal this week that would renew federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. The vote will be the conclusion of an extended political battle that has been going on so long it's hard to remember how we got here.
That's where we come in. Here's the history of the debate as well as the consequences of the Senate's inaction and, now, action.
How did we get here in the first place?
Someone who loses a job typically receives unemployment benefits from the state for 26 weeks. But during the recession, the number of people who remained out of work swelled, and Congress voted in 2008 to provide additional aid that made checks available for as long as 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. Last year, lawmakers cut the maximum benefit to 73 weeks. Then, at the end of December, Congress let federal aid lapse altogether.
That cut aid to one million people en masse in December and the ranks of those no longer receiving benefits has been growing by about 72,000 a week, according to the National Employment Law Project, which lobbies on behalf of the jobless.
So why did senators take so long to cut a new deal?
Democrats and a small handful of Republicans have been working together since late December to strike a new deal that would restart the benefits and pay for them in a way that Republicans could live with -- through May. Talks have been led by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who represent the two states with the highest levels of unemployment in the country.
The deal set for approval this week is cosponsored by ten senators -- five from each party: Reed, Heller, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
What are the prospects in the House for approving the extension?
Slim. Speaker John A. Boehner and other top Republicans say that Congress should be focused more on passing Republican-sponsored bills designed to jumpstart the job market instead of voting to restart a government-funded program to help unemployed workers. Boehner had said that the House would take a look at a Senate-passed plan if it included a "pay for" and has since highlighted the concerns of some state unemployment agencies who've warned that provisions in the new agreement might be too onerous to implement before late May. Those same officials didn't take an actual position on the legislation, but Boehner used their concerns as a way to cast doubt on the Senate proposal.
And what are lawmakers planning to do after the benefits run out in May?
The same group of senators working on the short-term extension are already working on a longer-term agreement. Stay tuned.
How will the extension be paid for?
The extension would be paid for by extending "pension smoothing," which would temporarily increase tax collections from employers by permitting them to pay less now into employee pension funds, something that would lead to higher tax receipts for the Treasury. The proposal also permits single-employer pension plans to prepay their flat rate premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which is also expected to boost revenues.
If I'm eligible, how much can I expect to receive?
Benefits are determined on a case-by-case basis, but on average, eligible people received about $300 weekly from 2010 to 2012. In 2012, people in Puerto Rico received $133 weekly, while people in Massachusetts received around $653 (or $979 with dependents), according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
If I've been unemployed since the benefits ran out, will I be able to apply for benefits retroactively?
If I've found a job but was still unemployed for a period of time after late December, will I be able to apply for benefits retroactively?
Yes, claims made prior to starting a new job would be valid. If someone kept filing claims in January and got a job in February that person would receive retroactive benefits so long as they haven't exhausted their eligibility.
Are there any restrictions on eligibility?
Yes. The agreement includes language from Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that would ban anyone who earned more than $1 million last year to collect payments. Such people account for 0.03 percent of total recipients, according to the bill's sponsors.