RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One of the year-end fights going on in Congress is about extending unemployment insurance. Democrats want to extend benefits for people long out of work. Republicans say, wait a minute, it's time to reform the program and lower its cost.
The stakes are high on this one. The Labor Department estimates that if Congress doesn't do something soon, some two-and-a-half million people could stop receiving checks by March. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports now on the politics and on the realities of unemployment insurance.
ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: This is a little complicated. Each state and territory administers its own unemployment compensation program, but a good chunk of the money comes from the federal government. And that's what Republicans want to rein in.
REPRESENTATIVE DAVE CAMP: Since 2008, extensions of unemployment benefits have added $180 billion to the debt.
SEABROOK: Republican Dave Camp runs the House committee that writes tax law - the Ways and Means committee. On the House floor, Camp argued for a new GOP approach to unemployment benefits - one that spends a lot less money, and adds a lot more requirements.
CAMP: This program is fully paid for, and it contains significant reforms, such as allowing states to screen and test unemployment insurance recipients for drug abuse.
SEABROOK: Drug screening, mandatory training - to be paid for by deducting money from the unemployed person's check, and in some cases a delay in benefits until a person enters a GED program to get a high school diploma. Illinois Democrat Danny Davis called it brutal.
REPRESENTATIVE DANNY DAVIS: The Republican proposal demands untested, punitive measures, that hurt unemployed workers.
SEABROOK: Davis argued the Republicans' plan would disproportionately hit older Americans, people with lower income, minorities, and people in economically depressed cities. What Davis argued during House debate was that in this time of economic crisis, federal funding for unemployment benefits should be extended as is, through to the end of 2012. The program works he says, and it has been critical to the slow economic recovery.
DAVIS: By keeping 3.2 million Americans, including nearly one million children, from falling into poverty in 2010 alone.
BENJAMIN ZUSES: I have been on unemployment since July 2010 when I was laid off from my engineering job.
SEABROOK: This is Benjamin Zuses. He's 28, lives in Baltimore, and he's a computer and electrical engineer. A few months out of college in 2008, Zuses got a job with a company that designs equipment for manufacturers - a shrinking industry. Zuses survived three rounds of layoffs before he was finally let go in the summer of 2010.
His company handed him a packet of information, Zuses says, on how to apply for unemployment. It's pretty straightforward in Maryland. You go online, he says, fill out forms, and the state tells you you're accepted.
ZUSES: But what isn't explained is that after the first 24 weeks, you get a letter saying you've run out of unemployment benefits, you know, call this number at this time to renew them.
SEABROOK: This is when the extra extended federal money kicks in, and you have to re-apply for it. Then it runs out, says Zuses.
ZUSES: And then you have to do that again, randomly. And so you never know when they're going to run out, and they, in fact, specifically tell you that. They're like, you know, you've been re-approved for unemployment benefits, but, you know, there's no guarantee when they will run out.
SEABROOK: Because, the truth is, the State unemployment agencies don't know what's coming next from the federal government - from Congress. If it will extend benefits, for how long, and under what conditions, exactly the questions before the Congress right now. For Benjamin Zuses that means he has no idea how long he's got left before the checks stop coming.
ZUSES: I've heard that it goes 99 weeks, but I don't know when it'll actually run out. And I, you know, any time I apply, I'm waiting for that letter to come in saying, you know, basically you've run out of money.
SEABROOK: And for millions of other Americans it makes what can sound like an abstract policy debate on the House floor much more concrete.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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