WASHINGTON (AP) - President Obama has signed into law legislation to restoreunemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for sixmonths or more, ending a seven-week interruption that caused 2 1/2million people to lose unemployment benefits averaging about $300 aweek.
The 272-152 House vote Thursday sent the measure to Obama, whopromised to quickly sign it. The House vote came less than 24 hoursafter a mostly party-line Senate vote Wednesday on the measure,which is just one piece of a larger Democratic jobs agenda that hasotherwise mostly collapsed after months of battles withRepublicans.
Retroactive payments could go out as early as next week in somestates, while in others it could take a few weeks for beneficiariesto receive their money under the legislation, which providesmuch-needed help to 5 million eligible unemployed workers. Abouthalf of those eligible have had their benefits cut off sincefunding expired June 2.
"Americans who are working day and night to get back on theirfeet and support their families in these tough economic timesdeserve more than obstruction and partisan game-playing," Obamasaid in a statement Wednesday night.
The measure is what remains of a Democratic effort launched inFebruary to renew elements of last year's stimulus bill. But GOPopposition forced Democrats to drop $24 billion in aid to stategovernments to help them avoid layoffs and higher taxes, as well asa popular package of expired tax cuts and a health insurancesubsidy for the unemployed.
Most Republicans opposed the measure because it would add $34billion to a national debt that has hit $13 trillion, arguing thatit should have been paid for with cuts to other programs, such asunspent money from last year's economic stimulus bill, which isearning mixed grades at best from voters as unemployment averages9.5 percent nationwide.
"The other side says that these unemployment benefits stretchingto almost two years are needed and must be added to the $13trillion debt, even as they claim their trillion-dollar stimulusplan has been a success at creating millions of jobs," said Rep.Charles Boustany, R-La. "It makes you wonder if they're looking atthe same jobs data as the rest of us."
It's a change of heart for many Republicans who voted fordeficit-financed unemployment benefits in the past, including twiceduring George W. Bush's administration. Earlier this year,Republicans allowed a temporary unemployment measure to passwithout even calling for a roll call vote.
Opinion polls show that deficits and debt are of increasingconcern to voters, however, especially with Republicans' coreconservative supporters and the tea party activists whose supportthey're courting in hopes of retaking control of Congress.
Democrats countered that many economists say unemploymentbenefits boost the economy since most beneficiaries spend themimmediately, injecting money into the economy. But any such effectsare likely to be modest when measured against a $14.6 trillioneconomy.
"Unemployment benefits protect those who are have lost theirjobs through no fault of their own but would lead to more jobs,higher wages, and a stronger economy for all Americans," counteredSpeaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "The money will be spent immediatelyon necessity, injecting demand into the economy, creatingjobs."
The first 26 weeks of jobless benefits are paid for by thestates. Thursday's legislation renews a federally financed programproviding up to 73 additional weeks of benefits in states with highunemployment rates.
About half of those eligible have had their benefits cut offsince funding expired June 2. They are eligible for lump-sumretroactive payments that are typically delivered directly to theirbank accounts or credited to state-issued debit cards.
In states like Pennsylvania and New York, the back paymentsshould go out next week, officials said. In others, like Nevada andNorth Carolina, it may take a few weeks for all of those eligibleto receive benefits.
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