Congress passes extension of unemployment benefits

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U.S. President Barack Obama signs an extension of unemployment benefits at the White House on July 22, 2010 in Washington, D.C. Earlier today the President signed the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act that will require federal agencies to put forth more funds towards audits to curb improper spending.

Californians whose unemployment benefits are running dry got a reprieve today. The U.S. House of Representatives approved an extension until the end of November. The vote divided mostly along party lines.

If you ask Republicans like Congressman John Campbell of Irvine, the $35 billion price tag on the extension adds to the growing pool of federal red ink. He says the greatest threat to job creation is the federal debt and deficit. He says he'd rather not spend the money at all, but if we do, he says it should be spent on "higher impact things" that will help the private sector generate jobs.

The nation's debt and deficit "are affecting the ability of the economy to create jobs," he says. "People don't want unemployment insurance, they want a job."

Democrat Linda Sanchez has a different opinion. "Throwing families into poverty," she says, "has more dire consequences for the economy in this country."

The Congresswoman from Lakewood echoed the sentiments of fellow Democrats who consider the extension of unemployment benefits “vital.”

She says, "you see home foreclosures rise and a whole host of economic impacts that stem from families not being able to keep it together."

Thirty-one Republicans broke ranks and voted for the measure. Ten Democrats voted ‘no.’ An estimated 400,000 Californians are expected to qualify for extended unemployment benefits.

At stake are up to 73 weeks of federally financed benefits for people who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state jobless benefits. About half of the approximately 5 million people in the program have had their benefits cut off since its authorization expired June 2.

They are eligible for lump-sum retroactive payments that are typically delivered directly to their bank accounts or credited to state-issued debit cards. Many states have encouraged beneficiaries to keep updating their paperwork in hopes of speeding payments once the program was restored.

In states like Pennsylvania and New York, the back payments should go out next week, officials said. In others, like Nevada and North Carolina, it may take a few weeks for all of those eligible to receive benefits.

Thursday's 272-152 House vote sent the bill to the White House.

" Americans who are fighting to find a good job and support their families will finally get the support they need to get back on their feet during these tough economic times," Obama said in a statement issued after signing the measure.

The House action came less than 24 hours after a mostly party-line Senate vote Wednesday on the measure, which is just one piece of a larger Democratic jobs agenda that has otherwise mostly collapsed after months of battles with Republicans.

The measure is what remains of a Democratic effort launched in February to renew elements of last year's economic stimulus bill. But GOP opposition forced Democrats to drop $24 billion to help state governments avoid layoffs and higher taxes, as well as a package of expired tax cuts and a health insurance subsidy for the unemployed.

Wrangling over the larger measure consumed about four months. The jobless benefits portion picked up enough GOP support in the Senate - Maine moderates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe - only after it was broken off as a stand-alone bill. It would have passed last month were it not for the death of Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; Byrd's replacement, Democrat Carte Goodwin, cast the key 60th vote Tuesday to defeat a GOP filibuster.

Most Republicans opposed the measure because it would add $34 billion to a national debt that has hit $13 trillion, arguing that it should have been paid for with cuts to other programs, such as unspent money from last year's economic stimulus bill, which is earning mixed grades at best from voters as unemployment stands at 9.5 percent nationwide.

Thirty-one House Republicans, about one in six, voted for the measure Thursday, while 10 Democrats opposed it.

"The other side says that these unemployment benefits stretching to almost two years are needed and must be added to the $13 trillion debt, even as they claim their trillion-dollar stimulus plan has been a success at creating millions of jobs," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La. "It makes you wonder if they're looking at the same jobs data as the rest of us."

Opposition marked a change of heart for many Republicans who had voted for deficit-financed unemployment benefits in the past, including twice during George W. Bush's administration. Earlier this year, Republicans twice allowed temporary unemployment measures to pass without asking for a roll call vote.

Opinion polls show that deficits and debt are of increasing concern to voters, especially Republicans' core conservative supporters and the tea party activists whose support the GOP is courting in hopes of retaking control of Congress.

Republicans winced in February when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a temporary benefits measure for several days, only to relent amid a wave of bad publicity. But just a few weeks later, all but a handful of Republicans were opposed to renewing benefits unless they were paid for with cuts elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.

Democrats countered that many economists say unemployment benefits boost the economy since most beneficiaries spend them immediately. But any such effects are likely to be modest when measured against a $14.6 trillion economy.

"Unemployment benefits protect those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own but would lead to more jobs, higher wages and a stronger economy for all Americans," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "The money will be spent immediately on necessity, injecting demand into the economy, creating jobs."

The program is being renewed through the end of November. The White House signaled earlier this week that another extension may be sought if the jobless rate remains high, as many expect.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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