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Congress, Obama Extend Benefits as Unemployment Rises

The bill marks the third time that Congress has increased unemployment benefits since the recession started in December 2007.

November 6, 2009
On a day that brought more bad news about the number of Americans searching for work, President Barack Obama signed a bill Friday, November 6, that would extend unemployment benefits for up to 20 weeks.

The measure, which was approved unanimously in the Senate on November 4 and by a 403-12 in the House on November 5, would provide 14 additional weeks of unemployment checks to all jobless workers and six more weeks on top of that to people who live in states where the unemployment rate is greater than 8.5 percent.

The House passed a narrower version of the bill last month. It was held up in the Senate as the unemployment benefits were expanded and other provisions were added, such as business tax cuts and a renewal of a tax credit for homebuyers.

The additional unemployment benefits are financed by extending a surtax on employers through 2011.

The bill marks the third time that Congress has increased unemployment benefits since the recession started in December 2007. Previous legislation added up to 53 weeks of benefits to the normal 26 weeks.

But as the recession has endured, the safety net has frayed. The National Employment Law Project in Washington estimates that 600,000 workers exhausted their unemployment benefits in September and October and that 1.3 million will run out of support by the end of the year.

The Economic Policy Institute says that more than one-third of the 15.7 million jobless Americans have been out of work for more than six months.

Obama enacted the legislation on a day when the government reported that the unemployment rate had reached 10.2 percent, its highest level in 26 years. He framed the measure as a way to boost the economy by increasing consumer spending.

“Although the extension will help over 1 million Americans, it won’t just put money into the people’s pockets who are receiving the benefits,” Obama said in a statement in the White House Rose Garden. “Economists tell us that when these benefits are spent on food or clothing or rent, it actually strengthens our economy and creates new jobs.”

Lawmakers said the bill would help ease the pain and anxiety that the economy is inflicting on many of their constituents.

“We know that when an economy recovers, the unemployment rate is one of the last numbers to rebound,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said in a November 4 statement. “So even as our economy begins to turn around, jobs are turning around slower, and it is our responsibility to ensure the out-of-work are not left out in the cold.”

Reid portrayed Republicans as having needlessly delayed the legislation before voting for it as a bloc this week. Senate Democrats and Republicans slowed down the original House bill as they enhanced the unemployment benefits and added the tax amendments.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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