Q. Do extended benefits help the economy?
A. Many economists say they do. Unemployment checks help cover the rent, groceries and gasoline for millions of financially squeezed Americans, according to congressional Democrats. It boosts consumer spending and reduces dependence on other government welfare programs. All that lifts the economy slightly. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in December that continuing the benefits for a full year would add 200,000 jobs and 0.2 percentage points to economic growth in 2014. To put that in context: The economy added an average of fewer than 200,000 jobs a month during 2013. That said, the economic benefit of a three-month extension would be much less.
Q. What about critics who argue that these benefits, in effect, pay people not to work?
A. Not quite. To receive benefits, an unemployed person is supposed to actively look for work. And supporters note that the checks average $256 a week, which still keeps things pretty close to the poverty line. Congress has renewed the extended benefits each year. But unlike previous yearlong extensions of the emergency benefits, this continuation would be for just three months.
Q. What's the cost to taxpayers?
A. Extending the benefits for three months would cost $6.4 billion. Most congressional Republicans don't want that sum tacked onto the budget deficit. So they plan to negotiate for additional spending cuts.
Q. What happens to people when they lose their unemployment benefits?
A. Many basically drop out of the economy. Some apply for Social Security disability benefits to get by, according to academic research. Because of changes to its system, North Carolina began cutting unemployment aid in July. The state's unemployment rate dropped from 8.8 percent in June to 7.4 percent in November. But that's not because lots of people suddenly found jobs. Since they were no longer receiving benefits, many discouraged workers gave up their search and were no longer counted as unemployed. So the state's unemployment rate fell for the wrong reason.
(Read more: Facing cuts, long-term unemployed brace for grim new year)
Q. But critics say extended unemployment benefits can actually hurt the economy. Why?
A. The argument is that extended benefits keep the unemployed on the sidelines, waiting for that perfect job that almost never materializes. Research shows that many employers ignore jobseekers with gaps of more than six months in their resume. When people are out of work that long, their skills start to erode, as does their earning potential, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO director who has advised Republicans. He calls the program "a mixed blessing." Holtz-Eakin notes that unemployment benefits were created during the Great Depression to address temporary layoffs. It was never intended to be a job re-training or anti-poverty program, he says.
—By The Associated Press