WASHINGTON - Voters clearly want lawmakers to ease the nation's unemployment pain, but a sharply divided Congress is still balking at extending jobless benefits for those out of work a long time.
Unless Congress acts by Tuesday night, an estimated two million people set to receive extended benefits will not get them on time, if ever. Lawmakers are off this week for Thanksgiving and return Monday, giving them just two days to act.
If lawmakers do not extend the benefits, it will be the third time this year that they will have missed a deadline to do so, even though the nation's unemployment rate, at 9.6 percent, is about where it was in May. Earlier this year, after Congress failed to extend benefits before deadlines, people on unemployment got retroactive benefits once legislation was passed.
The average family receives about $290 a week from the benefits, which can last up to 99 weeks, depending on a state's jobless rate. State employer taxes pay for the first 26 weeks. In weeks 27 to 99, a federal program funds most of the benefits; that is what could be affected if Congress does not act.
Polls leave no doubt that Americans' top priority is job growth, yet last week, the first time Congress convened since the Nov. 2 midterm election, the House fell short on a vote to extend benefits, and the Senate did not try.
The House got a 258-154 majority for a $12.5 billion jobless-benefits extension through Feb. 28, but the measure failed because it was brought up under a special rule that required a two-thirds majority of those voting, or 275 votes, for passage.
Many Republicans saw the vote as a cynical Democratic ploy.
"Are you listening to the American people?" asked Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R., La.), saying voters had sent a message in the election that they want more fiscal responsibility. "The fact is that we can both provide this help and pay for it by cutting less-effective stimulus spending," he said, citing one GOP plan to pay for the jobless aid.
Democrats countered that the nation is experiencing a true emergency, and this was no time to quibble over spending offsets.
"Any family receiving unemployment insurance would tell you that these benefits do not provide for a luxurious lifestyle without financial worries," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D., Minn.). "These same families would tell you that without these benefits, they would lose their home, lose their car, and lose the ability to feed their children."
The National Employment Law Project, which studies jobless trends, estimates that the benefits cover half an average family's routine living expenses. That family spent about $1,408 a month on housing, $531 on food, and $638 on transportation, a total of $2,577 - but they're getting $1,257 monthly in jobless aid.