* Hundreds of thousands may face disruption in benefits
* Standoff in Senate over how to pay for them
* Congress leaves for recess without reaching agreement
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, March 26 Hundreds of thousands of
jobless Americans could face further financial strain in coming
weeks after Congress failed to extend the unemployment benefits
that help them pay the bills while they look for work.
With 14.9 million Americans out of work, Congress adjourned
for a two-week break without extending jobless programs that
are due to expire in coming days.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn blocked the Senate from
voting to extend the program on the grounds its $9.2 billion
cost should not add to the deficit. Democrats say it qualifies
as emergency spending and thus does not need to be offset with
tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere.
The two sides agreed on Thursday to a short-term extension
that would have been paid for elsewhere in the budget, but that
compromise was rejected by the Democratic-controlled House of
The unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent and is expected
to remain stubbornly high for months to come even as the
economy recovers from the worst recession in 70 years.
With no solution to the impasse, senators held a final
round of finger-pointing before leaving for a spring recess.
Democrats noted Republicans did not seek ways to pay for
massive tax cuts and other measures that added to the deficit
when they controlled Congress.
"If this isn't an emergency, I don't know what is," said
Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, whose home state of
Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate at 14.1
Republicans said Democrats are not interested in reining in
spending despite record budget deficits.
"Somebody has to start saying 'no' to the addiction that we
have, that every time we have a problem we just spend money on
it," Coburn said.
Jobless benefits normally expire after six months but
Congress has extended the limit several times amid a slump
marked by unusually high levels of long-term joblessness. More
than 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for
longer than six months, according to the Labor Department.
The House passed another extension more than a week ago,
but the Senate did not take it up until Thursday as the
healthcare reform effort dominated the agenda.
A similar standoff at the end of February suspended
benefits for several days. This time it could lead to greater
Congress is scheduled to return on April 12, a week after
benefits will start to expire for those who have been out of
work the longest.
Healthcare subsidies for the unemployed and a federal
flood-insurance program also would be disrupted. Doctors who
treat patients under the Medicare health-insurance program
would see their pay slashed.
The Senate will seek to reinstate these programs
retroactively when it returns from break, according to a
spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But even a one-week disruption in unemployment benefits
could be a severe blow when one job is available for every five
people looking for work.
"We're talking about $250 to $300 a week, but it's the
difference between being able to keep your family going and
not," Stabenow said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)