Millions of Unemployed Face Looming Expiration of Jobless Benefits

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

House Speaker John Boehner checked off the final items on his list of year-end legislation Thursday, dismissing lawmakers for a 25-day holiday recess.

The House came together in rare bipartisan fashion to pass the budget deal, approve the National Defense Authorization Act, extend farm law through the end of next month and temporarily delay cuts to doctors' Medicare payments.

But left undone was one major piece of legislation: an extension of long-term unemployment benefits.

Although the benefits could be extended retroactively, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged this week, 1.3 million Americans are set to lose them Dec. 28. Another 1.9 million people could be cut next summer without an extension.

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Many of the 32 Democrats who opposed the budget deal were furious that unemployment benefits were not extended in the deal, including Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who said it is "unthinkable that Congress would leave millions out in the cold in the middle of the holiday season."

But Boehner has maintained that the cost, about $25 billion, be offset with other spending reductions and overhaul that also help spur job creation. House Democrats believe the cost of a year-long extension could be offset by a program integrity initiative to root out fraud from undeserving beneficiaries.

While 166 of 201 Democrats wrote Boehner to demand a vote on an extension before leaving, other lawmakers have argued that considering the unemployment rate stands at a five-year low, the economy has improved to the point where benefits should not be extended again.

At 7.0 percent unemployment, the jobless rate is 2 points higher than the 5 percent unemployment rate at the start of the recession in December 2007. The long-term unemployed, those without work for at least 27 weeks, is 4.1 million people.

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Asked to identify a threshold of the unemployment rate where it would be unnecessary to extend jobless benefits, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said a variety of factors come into play but the bottom line is landing a job.

"I would say the answer to almost every question is a job. It's growth in our economy, investments in infrastructure," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "You can't say a certain percentage, 'Yes,' certain percentage, 'No.'"

The House of Representatives is scheduled to return to session Jan. 7.