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Democrats fired up for fight for unemployment benefits

Stories from constituents fuel urgency

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Democrats are returning to Washington this week armed with stories from some of the 1.6 million unemployed Americans back home who are desperate to have the federal government resume paying unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.

Federal long-term unemployment benefits, which kick in when regular state benefits run out and average about $300 a week, expired Dec. 28. Since then, the debate over restarting the benefits has turned into a major political scrap — even pitting some lawmakers against members of their own parties.

House Democrats were furious when Congress took a vacation last week, saying they should have stayed in town to talk about the program. But Senate Democrats said it was better to send lawmakers home where both Republicans and Democrats could hear from struggling voters.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said constituents — both employed and jobless — approached him to say how urgent the matter is.

"I've been doing lots of events and the overwhelming sentiment is that we need to extend emergency unemployment compensation for million of Americans who are still looking for work but can't find it," he told The Washington Times. "When I talk to people, whether they're out of work or have work, they want to help their neighbor because they understand by helping their neighbors who are unemployed they're helping their entire community."

After a month without the benefits, Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat, said Friday he's heard from people who are facing the first month of missing mortgage, car and student loan payments, and the first month their credit is at risk.

"I've heard all over my district from all kinds of people that they're just about at the point where they're going to step off the cliff," he said.

Democrats said the push for action came not just from those without jobs, but also the business owners who have lost customers as the unemployed tighten their belts.

Democrats have made extending benefits an early priority in 2014, but have met Republican opposition over finding a way to pay for the extension as well as other procedural fights.

An effort to extend the benefits failed in the Senate earlier this month, but leaders have vowed to hold another vote once lawmakers return to Washington.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and co-sponsor of the three-month extension, said Friday he's continuing to talk with Republican Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Susan Collins of Maine to find a bipartisan solution.

Mr. Heller and Ms. Collins and several of their Republican colleagues have proposed a short-term extension of unemployment benefits coupled with a restoration of military retirement benefits that got cut in last month's budget deal. They proposed across-the-board cuts to pay for the new spending.

Democrats say they'd prefer to add the new spending to the deficit rather than pay for it, and they want to see a longer-term extension of the unemployment benefits.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, California Democrat, met with a group of long-term unemployed constituents on Thursday in Los Angeles and was impressed by their optimism even as they faced unemployment with no benefits.

"The best thing I think I found is they are still determined," he said. "They don't look at the glass as being half empty ... they just say, 'Don't give up on us, give us a chance and we'll get back to work.'"

But at least one Republican who Democrats need onboard to get the extension to President Obama's desk was unfazed by his week with constituents.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said before leaving Washington that he was still waiting for a plan from the president that offsets the cost and includes job creation. His position has not changed, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner said Friday.

"I told the president, now a month-and-a-half ago, that if they had a plan to extend emergency unemployment benefits, I'd consider it, as long it was paid for and if there were provisions we could agree to that would help expand the economy and create more jobs," Mr. Boehner told reporters Jan. 16.

Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat, said he's willing to work with Mr. Boehner to find offsets for a short-term extension. He visited job centers during the weeklong break and spoke with many constituents looking for work. One young man Mr. Kind spoke with is attending technical school, but isn't sure he'll be able to keep paying for school without the benefits, even though he knows there'd be a good job in a high-demand field waiting for him if he's able to finish the program.

"As soon as we get back, conversations will continue," Mr. Kind told The Washington Times on Friday. "I'm hoping more of my colleagues have been doing what I have been this past week, reaching out to job centers, speaking to the staff and meeting with individuals being impacted right now."

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