Politics of Jobless Claims: Is Two Years of Benefits Too Much?

"People say, 'With this deficit, how can you add to it?' The best way to get out of our deficit is to put people back to work," said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

In normal economic times unemployment insurance lasts 26 weeks. But since 2008, Congress has periodically extended benefits so that the benefits, when added to state unemployment insurance programs, can run for 99 weeks or longer in the 28 states hardest hit by the recession.

But James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said 99 weeks is too long.

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While Sherk does not believe Congress should undo the current extensions ("pulling the rug out from under people is not good policy," he said), he does believe that 99 weeks of benefits can discourage people from looking for work or making necessary compromises, such as moving or changing industries.

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Unemployment insurance can, said Sherk, "delay the recognition of reality."

He points to the construction industry as an example. It's not likely that housing construction will return to its pre-2008 levels anytime soon, if ever. And the sooner that out-of-work construction workers move to new types of employment, said Sherk, the better for them and the economy.

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Sherk would like to see the government cap emergency unemployment benefit levels at 60 weeks -- a little more than a year -- instead of the nearly two-year current level, or the 2½ year level Congress is considering. The average worker, he explained, even with today's persistently high jobless rate, finds work within about 34 weeks of losing a job.

But all those arguments ignore the problems that any given unemployed worker might face, said Judy Conti at the National Employment Law Project.

"Its not a matter of them exhausting benefits and just settling. There's nothing to settle for," she said, adding that there are more unemployed people than jobs available. And even if a person wanted to pick up and move to another state to find work, she said that would be a tough thing to do after six months or a year of unemployment.

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"If you've been unemployed for a year you don't have the money to just pick up and move," she said.

Conti also argued that federal unemployment benefits stimulate the economy, as unemployed people use them to pay their mortgages, buy gas and groceries, not save, she said.

Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland, doesn't believe the economic stimulus argument applies anymore when it comes to unemployment benefits.

"If you take medicine and it doesn't work," he said, "and then you double the dose and it still doesn't work, do you take it again?"

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ABC News' Dan Arnall contributed to this report.
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