As Senate nears a vote on extending jobless benefits, states gear up to process the payments

By Andrew Taylor, AP
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

States prep jobless benefits as Senate nears vote

WASHINGTON — State unemployment agencies are gearing up to resume sending unemployment payments to millions of people as Congress promises to ship President Barack Obama a measure to restore lapsed benefits.

Under best-case scenarios, unemployed people who have been denied jobless benefits because of a partisan Senate standoff over renewing them can expect retroactive payments as early as next week in some states. In other states, it will take longer.

With a GOP filibuster broken on Tuesday, senators are slated to pass the measure early Wednesday evening — a full seven weeks after benefits first began to lapse for people participating in a federally funded program providing checks to people who have been out of a job for six months or more.

The timing of the Senate vote — it in itself was a subject of partisan brawling on Wednesday — virtually guarantees Congress would get the measure to Obama for his promised signature by no later than Thursday.

State unemployment and labor agencies have been preparing for weeks for Congress to restore jobless payments averaging $309 a week for almost 5 million people whose 26 weeks of state benefits have run out. Those people are enrolled in a federally financed program providing up to 73 additional weeks of unemployment benefits.

About half of those eligible, about 2½ million people, have had their benefits cut off since funding expired June 2. They are eligible for lump sum retroactive payments that are typically delivered directly to their bank accounts or credited to state-issued debit cards.

In states like Pennsylvania and New York, the back payments should go out next week, state officials said. In others, like Nevada, it may take a few weeks, said Mae Worthey, a spokesman for the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

In North Carolina, Employment and Income Department spokesman Andrew James says to expect a wait of two to six weeks.

The Senate continued debating the measure a full day after a GOP filibuster was defeated by a 60-40 vote. Senate rules require 30 hours of debate, but they are routinely waived and Democrats attacked Republicans for not allowing an immediate vote.

“Republicans are declaring an all-out war on unemployed Americans,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Even though Democrats have the votes to give unemployed workers the safety net they deserve, Republicans are callously delaying the vote for an entire day.”

In fact, the measure could have been passed months ago had Democrats not insisted on coupling it with a host of other, more controversial legislation, such as tax increases on hedge fund managers and on some small businesses that were used to pay to renew a popular package of tax breaks for individuals and businesses.

The resulting delays required two temporary unemployment insurance extensions — one came only after a lapse in coverage because Reid adjourned the Senate for its two-week Easter recess rather than engage in a time-consuming battle with Republicans. Benefits were restored retroactively.

Democrats have become more aggressive in attacking the GOP for opposing the measure, which has been stripped down so that it’s essentially limited to a $34 billion, six-month renewal of unemployment insurance for the chronically jobless.

Republicans say they support the benefits extension but insist any benefits be financed by cuts to programs elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Maine GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted with Democrats on Tuesday.

Missing no opportunity to seize a political edge, the White House lashed out at Republicans for forcing an extra day of debate as required under Senate rules — unless all 100 senators agree to waive them.

Many Republicans have voted in the past for deficit-financed benefits extension, including as recently as March and twice in 2008, during the Bush administration. But now they are casting themselves as opposing out-of-control budget deficits, a stand that’s popular with their core conservative supporters and tea party activists whose support they’re courting in hopes of retaking control of Congress.

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