- Associated Press - Thursday, July 22, 2010

Federal checks could begin flowing again as early as next week to millions of jobless people who lost up to seven weeks of unemployment benefits before Thursday, when lawmakers on Capitol Hill broke a long stalemate over the issue.

President Obama signed the legislation just hours after the House voted to restore benefits to people who have been out of work for six months or more, ending an interruption that cut off payments averaging about $300 a week to an estimated 2.5 million people.

The bill was caught up in partisan wrangling as Senate Republicans balked at the $34 billion bill because it did not include corresponding cuts in other programs to keep the federal deficit from growing.

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.

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.

The 272-152 House vote Thursday sent the measure to the White House, which wasted little time in getting Mr. Obama’s signature on the bill. The House vote 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.

Most Republicans opposed the measure because it would add $34 billion to a national debt that has reached $13 trillion, arguing that it should have been funded with cuts to other programs, such as unspent money from last year’s $862 billion economic stimulus package pushed by Mr. Obama.

Thirty-one House Republicans, about one in six, voted for the jobless benefits 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 Jr., Louisiana Republican. “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. Earlier this year, Republicans twice allowed temporary unemployment measures to pass without even 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 “tea party” activists whose support the GOP is courting to retake control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

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