Day after day, Ann McGilly has been calling the Senate and begging to know why her unemployment benefits have expired. The answer she keeps getting: Sorry, but they're busy right now fixing health care.
Hundreds of thousands of people ran out of unemployment benefits in September, and more than 1 million could have their benefits expire by the end of the year if Congress doesn't act. Ms. McGilly, who began to cry as she talked with a reporter, said she can't understand why the Senate is putting a health care bill that wouldn't take effect for years ahead of immediate action for the unemployed.
"Please make these people understand that it's cruel to make people wait like this for a health bill that may never come about," said Ms. McGilly, a New Jersey resident who received her last unemployment check last week and said she no longer has money to pay for her 17-year-old son's medication. "I signed for my final check, it was direct-deposited on Tuesday, all that money is going to my rent, and I don't even have money to buy food."
House members say they've done their part: On Sept. 22, the House voted 331-83 to grant an extra 13 weeks of benefits to states with the highest unemployment rates.
But the bill now languishes in the Senate, awaiting action by the Finance Committee - which has spent the past two weeks focused on a health care reform bill.
Complicating matters is a dispute in the Senate over exactly who should get the benefits. The House bill covers only the 27 states with unemployment rates higher than 8.5 percent - a move that House Democrats said helps make sure only those in need get the benefits.
"I know that some argue that unemployment insurance can be an incentive not to seek a job at all. But that argument doesn't hold water for the workers who are the target of this bill - workers in the states with unemployment rates over 8.5 percent, the states in which an honest effort to find work is most likely to be frustrated," Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said during floor debate.
Senate Democratic leaders are working on an alternative that also would offer four weeks of extended benefits for the states with lower rates, said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
"The alternative is drafted, and we are waiting to see how we can expeditiously proceed to the House bill," Mr. Manley said.
Some senators want to go further. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, has called for giving 17 weeks for the states with the highest unemployment rates and 13 weeks for the other states.
"It is our responsibility to our workers and to our economy to make sure that our nation's unemployed can pay the mortgage and keep food on the table while they look for work," she said in a statement Friday as the Labor Department announced that the national unemployment rate reached 9.8 percent in September. "With unemployment reaching record highs, four weeks of extended unemployment benefits simply won't cut it."
New Hampshire's unemployment rate stood at 6.9 percent in August, the most recent reporting for states. The unemployment rate for Ms. McGilly's home state of New Jersey was 9.7 percent, which means it would be among the states that would qualify under every proposal.
Mrs. Shaheen has proposed paying for her more generous benefits by dipping into the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Wall Street bailout package that Congress passed late last year. Mrs. Shaheen said that was only fair because the rest of the money is being used to bail out corporate executives.
The Finance Committee, mired in debate over health care reform, referred questions about timing to Mr. Reid's office. But an aide said the panel also is working on a bill that would cover the unemployed across the country. The aide pointed to a hearing that committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, held last month highlighting the issue and said the members want passage "as soon as possible."
Amid those disputes, the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, is waiting. His office says 300,000 people exhausted their benefits in September, and by the end of the year more than 1 million will have run out of benefits if no extension is passed.
Mr. McDermott's bill costs $1.4 billion and is funded by extending the Federal Unemployment Tax Act surcharge through 2010. The Senate plans are more expensive, though no cost estimate is available.
Unemployment insurance is a regular political hot spot every time the economy turns sour. Democrats blasted Republicans in 2002 and 2003 for not acting faster to extend benefits. Since the economy took a tumble last year, Congress has passed several extensions.
Still, the poor job situation confounds the unemployed, said Ms. McGilly. She said she's been looking for work since January 2008, and said she's had about 72 weeks of unemployment benefits since then. She's also been part of an education program that paid benefits while she took job-training classes.
She said her weekly payment started at $319 a week and was boosted $25 when Congress passed the stimulus bill in February.
Ms. McGilly said she has called the senators from her state repeatedly and tried to call the Finance Committee to beg for action.
She said the staffers who answer the phone tell her that her senators support the bill and "it will be voted on sometime later on, but right now they're concentrating on the health reform bill."
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