A 13-week extension of unemployment benefits in the 27 states with the highest jobless rates is being slowed by some lawmakers upset that their own states would be left out.
Senate leaders had hoped for a quick voice vote endorsing the House-passed bill to ensure a continued flow of funds to more than 1 million workers who are slated to exhaust their benefits by the end of the year.
The bill limits the extension to states where the unemployment rate tops 8.5 percent — leaving out 23 states not hit as hard by the recession.
"Unemployed workers face equally severe challenges no matter what state they live in, and they should be given the support they need," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in urging passage of legislation extending benefits in all 50 states.
Shaheen on Wednesday wrote a letter to Senate leaders, signed by 15 other Democrats and two independents who usually vote with Democrats, saying it was unfair that hundreds of thousands of workers in states with lower rates of unemployment would be excluded under the House plan.
The House bill passed last week by a 331-83 margin, with supporters arguing that the 8.5 percent threshold was needed to hold down costs and that the measure still covered a large majority of the long-term unemployed in danger of losing their benefits.
They said the bill would protect about three-fourths of the 400,000 expected to exhaust benefits in September, and more than a million facing a cutoff of assistance by the end of the year.
The unemployment rate is now 9.7 percent and is expected to climb above 10 percent in the coming months despite signs that the worst of the recession is abating.
About one-third of the 15 million out-of-work Americans have been without a job for six months, a figure that outpaces recent recessions. There are currently about six people looking for every job available.
States offer 26 weeks of benefits, with the average payment about $300 a week. Over the past two years Congress has stepped in several times to extend the length of benefits or help out state unemployment funds. The stimulus act passed last February also added $25 of federal money to weekly benefits.
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Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Calif., sponsor of the House bill, said it would cost about $1.4 billion but does not add to the deficit because it raises money from a one-year extension of a federal unemployment tax, costing about $14 an employee per year.
The House bill covers the 27 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico with jobless rates of at least 8.5 percent.
The 23 states that would not be included are Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.