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Senate vote clears way for resumption of unemployment benefits

 | 
Washington

The Senate rounded up 60 votes Tuesday to ward off a potential filibuster on a bill that would resume the federal payment of emergency unemployment benefits.

The Senate has yet to vote on the bill, and leaders in the Republican-controlled House have said they would not consider it until savings were found elsewhere in the budget to offset its expected $6.4 billion cost over three months.

Restoring aid for the jobless has been a priority of the U.S. bishops.

"According to the Department of Labor, the average length of unemployment remains over nine months, and there are still about three job seekers for every available opening," said a joint letter Nov. 12 to members of the joint House-Senate panel that developed a sequestration- and shutdown-avoiding budget plan from Bishops Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., then chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace.

"In light of this prolonged economic pain, extending emergency unemployment benefits for those out of work the longest is the just and decent thing to do," the bishops said. "The Catechism of the Catholic Church unambiguously states it is the proper role of government to 'make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.'"

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The budget panel, though, did not include unemployment benefits in its deal.

Blaire's successor as committee chairman, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, said in a Dec. 13 statement, "The recent welcome decline in unemployment levels hides the reality that millions of long-term unemployed workers continue to suffer from an economy that does not produce enough decent work.

"For most of these families, jobless benefits are the only source of support. I am disappointed that vital unemployment support for this population was not extended, and I hope Congress will do the just and decent thing by protecting these jobless workers as they search for new work."

Extending unemployment benefits "should be the first order of business in 2014," said President Barack Obama in remarks from the White House shortly after the Senate vote.

"This is not an abstraction. These are not statistics. These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members. It could at some point be any of us," Obama said. "That's why we set up a system of unemployment insurance. The notion was everybody is making a contribution because you don't know when the business cycle or an economic crisis might make any of us vulnerable."

About 1.4 million Americans were cut off from the benefits when they ended Dec. 28. "If this doesn't get fixed, it will hurt about 14 million Americans over the course of this year: 5 million workers along with 9 million of their family members -- their spouses, their children." But for the three months of the Senate bill, only about 1.4 million jobless would get aid.

There are about 10.3 million unemployed, according to the Department of Labor, and nearly half of them have been without work for more than six months.

The Senate bill has no provision to offset the expense for extending the jobless benefits; offsets were first used in 2008. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., proposed using savings expected in the farm bill to pay for the extension before Congress left for its holiday break in December, but Republicans blocked that idea.

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