Recognizing that a weak economy still needs a government boost, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to provide the jobless with up to 20 weeks in additional unemployment benefits and expand a first-time homebuyer tax credit to include a far larger pool of people entering the dormant housing market.
The $24 billion bill, passed 98-0, also provides tax relief for struggling businesses. It comes to the rescue of more than 1 million out-of-work people who will run out of benefits by the end of the year. Everyone will receive 14 weeks of additional benefits, while those in states with unemployment rates of 8.5 percent and above get six weeks on top of that.
With enactment, the jobless in the hardest-hit states could receive up to 99 weeks of benefits, which average about $300 a week. That would well exceed the previous record of 65 weeks during the 1970s.
The $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers, enacted as part of the stimulus package last February and set to expire this month, would be extended and expanded to include a $6,500 credit for people who have lived in their current residences at least five years.
Congress has no choice but to act when there are 15 million jobless chasing 3 million jobs and 7,000 people run out of benefits every day, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. Economists talk about the end of the recession, he said, but "for most Americans, it will still be some time before things start getting better."
The legislation now goes to the House, which is expected to quickly approve it and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday that the unemployment benefit extension was "critically important," while the tax credit aspects of the legislation were "acceptable" to the House.
The House acted in late September to extend unemployment benefits, but only to the jobless in the 27 states where the unemployment rate is above 8.5 percent.
The bill bogged down in the Senate, first when senators from states with lower jobless rates demanded that the extension apply to all people exhausting their benefits, then with negotiations over adding the homebuyer and business tax credits. Then, Republicans held up floor action when Democrats blocked them from offering amendments on matters unrelated to the base bill.
"Opponents have put up obstacles at every turn to delay the passage of this bill, and as a result of these delaying tactics approximately 200,000 workers have lost their benefits in this last month," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a chief proponent of the more expansive benefit extension.
Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project said it was "shameful" that the Senate procrastinated while an estimated 1.3 million face a loss of benefits by the end of the year. "We are in the middle of a national catastrophe as far as unemployment is concerned," she said. "This bill would provide a lifeline for those who are desperate, who are unemployed for no fault of their own."
The current unemployment rate is 9.8 percent and is expected to move into double digits before companies start rehiring despite a recent improvement in gross domestic product. The benefit extension would be the fourth since June of last year and the first since passage of the $787 billion stimulus package last February.
"You can't feed your family GDP," said Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent. "you need a job. you need to be able to work."
The legislation would extend the $8,000 tax credit through June of next year as long as the buyer enters into a binding contract before April 30. It doubles the income ceiling for qualification to $125,000 for individuals. The credit is available for homes purchased at under $800,000.
The measure also strengthens the ability of the IRS to stop people who are not eligible for the program from filing fraudulent claims.
The new $6,500 credit for existing homeowners, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a cosponsor of the measure, "is going to help us boost what is the problem in the U.S. housing market today and that is what is called the move-up market."
The third leg of the bill extends to all businesses that have incurred losses in 2008 and 2009 to seek refunds for taxes paid on profits over the past five years.
The two tax credits, each costing more than $10 billion over 10 years, are paid for by delaying enactment of a law giving international companies more leeway in how they allocate interest expenses between U.S. and foreign sources in determining tax liabilities.
The $2.4 billion cost of extending unemployment benefits is offset by extending through June, 2011, the federal unemployment tax that employers pay for each employee.