U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) pauses as he speaks to the media after the House vote on the Senate version of the payroll tax cut extension on Capitol Hill in Washington December 20, 2011.
Washington – More than three million people stand to lose unemployment insurance benefits in the near future because of an impasse in Congress over how to extend the aid and how to offset the cost.
Jobless benefits have been overshadowed by debate on a payroll tax cut, but have become a huge sticking point in negotiations on a bill that deals with both issues.
Republicans would continue aid for some of the unemployed, but would sharply reduce the maximum duration of benefits and impose strict new requirements on people seeking or receiving aid.
Democrats said these changes made no sense at a time when 45 percent of jobless workers had been unemployed for more than half a year and the average duration of unemployment â€” 41 weeks â€” was higher than at any time in 60 years.
Jon D. Grandstaff, 50, who lives in a suburb of Tulsa, Okla., said Tuesday that he had been watching the debate in Congress with trepidation, worried that his jobless benefits would be exhausted on Jan. 9.
â€œThis mess in Congress is so upsetting,â€ Mr. Grandstaff said in an interview. â€œI donâ€™t know who to blame â€” House, Senate, Republicans, Democrats. They are toying with peopleâ€™s lives. Iâ€™m getting really scared and nervous.â€
Mr. Grandstaff said he was making $43,000 a year when he was laid off in March from the collections department of a major cellphone company. Now he is working at a part-time job for $8 an hour and hoping the position will lead to full-time work.
Brenda G. Crosier, 52, of Northglenn, Colo., outside Denver, is also at risk of losing extended unemployment benefits. She said she applied for five to eight jobs a week but rarely received responses, and in a telephone interview Tuesday she had this question for Congress:
â€œWhy are you leaving for Christmas vacation? If you worked for a company and you did not have your work done, you would not be walking out the door. You have no business leaving until your work is finished.â€
Major provisions of the federal unemployment insurance program begin expiring in the first week of January, and people would begin to feel the effects over the next several months. By mid-February, the Labor Department estimates, 2.2 million workers would have lost jobless benefits, and by the end of March, 3.6 million will be affected.
People in states with the highest unemployment rates would be among the hardest hit.
The cornerstone of the program, regular unemployment insurance benefits, provides up to 26 weeks of assistance financed by the states. In states with high unemployment, jobless workers may be able to get up to 73 weeks of additional benefits, financed by the federal government, for a total of 99 weeks of aid. House Republicans would reduce the maximum to 59 weeks.
â€œThis reflects a more normal level of benefits typically available after recessions,â€ said Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said: â€œI donâ€™t see why you have to go more than 59 weeks. In fact, we need some incentives for people to get back to work. A lot of these people donâ€™t want to work unless they get really high-paying jobs, and theyâ€™re not going to get them ever. So they just stay home and watch television. I donâ€™t mean to malign people, but far too many are doing that.â€
The Senate version of the payroll tax bill, passed with bipartisan support on Saturday, would continue paying jobless benefits under current law for two months, while lawmakers tried to figure out a longer-term solution.
House Republicans said they wanted a full-year extension, with additional requirements to prevent abuse of the program. They would require most recipients of jobless benefits to search for work and to pursue G.E.D. certificates if they had not completed high school.
Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, said the Republican proposals amounted to â€œthe most drastic attack on the unemployment systemâ€ in 75 years.
House Republicans would also allow states to require drug testing as a condition of getting benefits. Democrats said such tests were an insult to the unemployed, because they implied that many were lazy drug abusers.
â€œI donâ€™t see anyone in the Republican majority demanding drug testing for folks who receive oil and gas subsidies,â€ said Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina.
But Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, said, â€œPeople who are unemployed should be looking for a job and should not become voluntarily ineligible by taking illegal drugs.â€
Democrats say the program has reduced poverty and helped stabilize the economy, reducing the depth of the last recession. Republicans say the benefits have led some people to reduce their efforts to find new jobs.
Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, said: â€œThe problem is not a lack of effort for those seeking a job. The problem is a lack of jobs.â€
House Republicans said they had borrowed ideas from the jobs bill  that President Obama sent Congress in September. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said the presidentâ€™s proposal would probably reduce the maximum length of unemployment benefits to 79 weeks, from the current 99, in many states.
Republicans would allow states to get waivers from many federal standards and requirements, including one stipulating that money from state unemployment taxes must be spent on jobless benefits. Democrats see the waivers as a threat to the fabric of the unemployment insurance system. But Republicans said that, instead of just writing benefit checks, federal and state officials must do more to help people get back to work.
â€œIn this uncertain economy, using unemployment dollars to subsidize the training of a new employee to re-enter the work force is just good public policy,â€ said Representative James B. Renacci, Republican of Ohio.
This article, â€œThree Million Could Lose Jobless Pay in Impasse,â€ originally appeared at The New York Times News Service.