As Congress Plays Politics, the Unemployed Suffer

010402, story graphic unemployment jobless numbers, JM

Once again Congress is leaving town without extending emergency unemployment insurance benefits, leaving well over a million jobless Americans with no source of income and letting that number grow by an estimated 200,000 a week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it "cruel," and it certainly is rough on those people relying on those small weekly checks to pay the grocery bill.

In normal economic times, unemployment insurance runs for six months, and that's usually enough time for most people who lose their jobs to find new ones. But in recessions, it is harder to find a new job and traditionally Congress has extended benefits for people when the unemployment rate is high.

In June 2008, when this recession was in its early stages, Congress passed extended unemployment insurance and has continued it since then as the unemployment rate has climbed and it has become increasingly difficult for those who've been laid off to find new work. There was always bipartisan support for doing it, and the bills to extend the benefits were signed by President Bush and then President Obama.

The employment situation is still grim, but in the past few months the politics has shifted.

The first trouble came in February when Congress was about to leave on a break for President's Day and Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning blocked the Senate from extending unemployment insurance. He argued that with the federal deficit so high, it was time to stop the decades-old practice of considering extended unemployment insurance to be an "emergency" and thus added to the deficit rather than paid for by cutting other spending or raising somebody's taxes.

Bunning was roundly criticized, and when the Senate returned from its break it quickly voted to retroactively extend the benefits and the checks began going out again.

But more Republicans began taking up the cause arguing that money should not be borrowed, and when the Senate left for its Memorial Day break, it again allowed the unemployment benefits to run dry. Democrats insisted it had always been emergency spending and so had to stay that way.

The impasse continued, and then Wednesday night the Senate fell one vote short of breaking the Republican filibuster blocking the extension of unemployment benefits. Conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska joined all but two Republicans in opposing it and the death of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd left Democrats one vote short. By the time they come back from their Independence Day Break on July 12, nearly two million out-of-work Americans will have lost their unemployment insurance benefits.

Republicans of course have done more than their share of adding to the deficit. For years when they ran Congress they insisted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were "emergencies" that should be paid for only with borrowed money. But they have now drawn a firm line in the sand insisting there can be no more deficit spending for anything. Sadly, the unemployed ended up on the wrong side of that line.

Bob Fuss is CBS Radio News' Capitol Hill Correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.