Senate Democrats, emphasizing that 7,000 people a day are running out of unemployment insurance benefits, pushed Tuesday for action on legislation to extend those benefits for up to 20 weeks.
The Senate was to vote later in the day on whether to take up the measure that would provide up to 14 weeks in extra financial aid for everyone exhausting their benefits by the end of the year, and another six weeks for those living in the 27 states where the unemployment rate is at least 8.5 percent. Sixty votes were needed to advance the measure.
The House passed a less generous benefit extension more than a month ago, but Senate Republicans, at odds with Democrats over what amendments they can offer to the bill, have blocked Senate consideration.
There appeared to be consensus in the Senate that the unemployment bill would be combined with another issue that has been central to the Obama administration's efforts to revive the sputtering economy — an extension of the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit that is to expire at the end of November.
Various proposals are on the table, including one by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., that would extend the $8,000 tax credit through March 31. The value of the credit would then drop to $6,000, $4,000 and then $2,000 over the next three quarters. Another idea would extend the tax credit to homebuyers who already own homes, as long as they have been in those homes for at least seven years.
Democrats are also offering a plan to extend the ability of money-losing businesses to claim refunds on taxes paid during profitable times up to four years ago.
Republicans, meanwhile, were demanding that they be given a chance to offer amendments on federal aid to the beleaguered community activist group ACORN and on requiring that people receiving unemployment insurance be processed through E-Verify, an Internet-based system that employers use to check on the immigration status of new hires.
Democrats, in floor speeches and news conferences, have voiced frustrations at the delay. "If the American people knew that legislation to help jobless workers pay their bills and purchase necessities was being held up to score political points, they would be outraged," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a leader on the unemployment benefit issue.
The states normally provide 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, with payments of about $300 a week. Since the beginning of the recession, the federal government has chipped in with added help, and the jobless in those states hardest hit by the economic downturn are now entitled to up to 79 weeks.
Supporters of another extension point out that up to 2 million people are going to run out of benefits by the end of the year and that despite some signs of economic recovery there is still only about one job available for every six job seekers. The unemployment rate is now 9.8 and is expected to top 10 percent before companies begin rehiring.
"A positive GDP is not the answer for people who are looking for work unsuccessfully," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "They need the benefits of extended unemployment compensation."
The House-passed bill would provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits, but only in those 27 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, where the unemployment rate tops 8.5 percent. Senate moved to expand that after Shaheen and others from states that didn't reach the 8.5 percent threshold argued that the unemployed should be assisted regardless of where they live.
The extended benefits would be paid for by dedicating money from the federal unemployment tax, a payroll tax companies pay for individual employees.