Talks over unemployment insurance continue, but clock is ticking

When federal benefits for the long-term unemployed expired at the end of last year, Democrats and some Republicans committed to restoring those benefits for the millions of Americans impacted. Four months later, about 2.3 million people have lost access to that assistance, and Democrats and Republicans are still trying to hash out an agreement over the issue. If a matter of weeks, however, those negotiations could get more complicated.

On Monday, the Senate finally managed to pass a bipartisan compromise that would extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which provides extra income to the long-term unemployed who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. The compromise bill would extend benefits for five months and retroactively send checks to people whose benefits ran out when the program expired on Dec. 28. It is paid for and also ends unemployment insurance payments to any individual whose adjusted gross income in the preceding year was $1 million or more.

So far, however, there's no indication of when - or if - the Republican-led House may take up the measure. The House is in session Thursday but clocks out Friday for a two-week spring break. When the House returns on April 28, it may take up the measure -- but the Senate bill only extends the program through the end of May. In other words, the ongoing negotiations must either adjust the Senate bill, or talks would soon start on a second bill to extend the program yet again.

Mitchell Hirsch, an advocate for unemployed workers with the National Employment Law Project, told CBS News that the issue is just as pressing now as it was in December.

"The labor market has just not recovered sufficiently, and the relative difficulty for people who've been out of work for six months or more in landing a job is just as tough now as it's been throughout the recession and the recovery," he said.

The Labor Department did report solid job growth in the month of March, but the number of long-term unemployed changed little: Last month there were 3.7 million people who had been jobless for 27 weeks or more, accounting for 35.8 percent of the unemployed.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said bringing up the Senate bill as-is is off the table, however, he'd be willing to hold a vote on a bill to renew the program as long as it has sufficient measures to promote job growth. There are a number of House Republicans who are already interested in renewing the EUC program, and others have said they'd be open to combining the bill with other House priorities. For instance, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, has said he's open to combining it with a permanent extension of a tax measure allowing bonus depreciation for business investment.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., one of the lead negotiators on this issue in the Senate, is seeking to sort out the House and Senate differences with Boehner. Staff for Heller and Boehner have already met to discuss the legislation, but the two lawmakers are still working on meeting face to face.

In addition to adding measures to promote job growth, the lawmakers will have resolve their differences of opinion over renewing the benefits retroactively. Boehner, citing concerns from the National Association of State Work Force Agencies, has called the bill Heller helped draft "not implementable."

"State directors are saying we don't know who went back to work... we'd have to send checks to everybody," Boehner said.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez sent a letter to congressional leaders last week in response to the NASWA complaints, contending that issuing retroactive benefits wouldn't be a problem. Hirsch pointed out to CBS News that while it may not be easy, the states have had to extend benefits under more complicated circumstances -- such as when benefits were reduced because of the sequestration cuts. Under such a scenario, the Labor Department typically issues guidance and resources for states, so they can reach out to people eligible for benefits.

"There's no switch you can flick on and the entire benefit program just runs automatically," Hirsch said. "There would be some complex programming adjustments the states would have to make, but they've done that kind of thing before."

The hardest people to reach would be those in dire economic circumstances, such as those who have faced eviction or had their phone lines cut off.

As the talks continue, lawmakers looking for a resolution are trying to ratchet up the pressure on House leadership. For instance, groups like the pro-Obama advocacy group Organizing for Action have petitions calling for the House to move the bill. In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Gainesville Sun, Perez wrote, "Of all the challenges I face as the nation's labor secretary, this is the one that keeps me up at night: long-term unemployment."