Senate deal renews jobless benefits

But pact's outcome in House remains up in the air

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WASHINGTON -- Senate negotiators struck a bipartisan deal Thursday that would renew federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, allowing for retroactive payments to go to more than 2 million Americans whose benefits expired in late December.

Ten senators, as many Republicans as Democrats, announced the pact and set a timeline in which the measure could pass the Senate by late March.

Its House outcome remains up in the air, however. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has opposed previous Senate plans as insufficient in providing offsetting cuts, did not offer a statement on the new proposal.

With 55 Democratic caucus members supporting an unemployment benefits extension, the five Republican supporters of the legislation provide just enough votes to clear the 60-vote hurdle needed to pass the legislation.

"It has now been 75 days since [unemployment insurance] expired, and it needs to be renewed. We're not at the finish line yet, but this is a bipartisan breakthrough," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the legislation's lead sponsor, said in a statement.

"I'm pleased that we've reached an agreement that will get a sufficient number of Republican votes," Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the lead GOP negotiator, told reporters.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., signaled that the measure would create a five-month extension of the federal benefits plan for the jobless, backdated to late December, when the program expired. If it passes the House and is signed into law, it will run through the end of May.

The bill would effectively restart a key aid program for long-term unemployed workers whose jobless benefits went beyond state limits, which are about 26 weeks with some variation for each state. The roughly $10 billion cost of the renewed federal jobless benefits would be offset by extending fees on goods coming through U.S. Customs and altering the way corporations contribute to pensions, the senators announced.

In addition, the legislation will include two changes to the unemployment program, one of which will require more job training for long-term jobless workers to continue receiving insurance benefits. Also, the legislation includes a provision that eliminates state or federal unemployment benefits for laid-off workers whose gross income the previous year topped $1 million -- which, according to federal estimates, represented 0.03 percent of all recipients.

Some Republicans in the discussions felt that the unemployment program's overhauls were insufficient, akin to a promise of more changes later. "We've heard too many promises from this administration to buy into that," said Sen. Daniel Coats, R-Ind., who was part of the talks but declined to co-sponsor the deal.

Thursday's announcement capped 2 1/2 months of Senate talks that began in earnest in early January, after the law for the emergency program expired. Those extra benefits began late in the George W. Bush administration, as the Great Recession began, and have continued throughout the Obama administration. For years, those extra federal jobless benefits won congressional approval without any offsetting spending cuts.

But by late last year, Republicans said the unemployment program should no longer be considered "emergency" spending, and instead should be part of the normal budget. That set off a long debate and weeks of closed-door negotiations, led by Mr. Reed and Mr. Heller, who represent the two states with the nation's worst unemployment rates.

Handling long-term jobless workers has become a key fault-line in the national economy. Experts have been struggling to find ways to get unemployed workers back into the economy, given that many who lost jobs come from industries disappearing from the United States.

Additionally, with Congress otherwise gridlocked on how to boost the economy, unemployment insurance payments represented one of the only forms of stimulus the federal government is providing as job creation remains stagnant.



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