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Congress goes home, leaves unemployed behind

With the GOP still blocking unemployment aid, Congress breaks for recess and leaves the jobless on the back burner.
Sen. Jack Reed stands with unemployed Americans during a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to urge Congress to extend unemployment benefits, Jan. 16, 2014.
Sen. Jack Reed stands with unemployed Americans during a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to urge Congress to extend unemployment benefits, Jan. 16, 2014.

With a major snowstorm approaching the East Coast, Congress decided on Wednesday it had some urgent business to take care of before going home for recess.

The Senate passed the debt-ceiling bill; confirmed the nominee for the U.S. Alternate Governor of the International Bank for Reconstruction; and voted to move forward on naming the "Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center." 

Extendiing federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless didn't make the list.

For Robert Beavers, 56, that means more weeks of worrying whether his heat and lights will get cut off again. His unemployment check helped him keep the lights on since he lost his job unloading trucks at a meat factory in central Ohio. When the checks stopped coming, "that kind of crippled me," said Beavers, whose car was recently repossessed.

Just to look for a job, he needs money for transportation and phone bills—things that are rapidly falling out of reach. "I've been struggling to get bus fare from point A to point B," said Beavers, who lives in Cleveland. "I had to borrow $76 to get the heat and electricity back on." He then rushed off his cell phone, as he couldn't afford to use up more than a few minutes of credit.

By the smallest of margins, Republicans continue to block the renewal of federal jobless aid, and there's nothing that Democrats can do until one GOP members moves over. "We picked up four [GOP] votes. The other vote is in the Republican caucus. We can't find it," says Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who has been leading the effort to revive the benefits.

With Congress in recess for the next two weeks, the earliest the issue could come up again would be the end of February—nearly two months after the federal benefits expired for 1.3 million unemployed Americans. That number has since topped 1.7 million as the jobless continue to get cut off state benefits without any federal backstop. 

The Republican-driven deadlock has been deeply infuriating for Donald Mohr, a 61-year-old manager who worked in manufacturing for more than 40 years before being laid off. "Let's face it, the Republicans are turning into a game, and I voted for some of them. It's neither a Democrat or Republican [issue], and they're turning it into a circus and using these filibusters," says Mohr, who lives in Milwaukee. 

Mohr considers himself luckier than others who've lost their federal unemployment benefits. He earned a decent living, has built up savings, and can start collecting Social Security in April when he turns 62. But he says he never wanted to be forced into early retirement and has struggled to find anything more than temporary work—a stint at Harley-Davidson, a two-month contract at GE—despite his years of experience. And he feels terribly for other jobless Americans who don't have a financial cushion to protect them.

"It's just a travesty—this is not what America is supposed to be about," says Mohr. As for the Republicans blocking the aid, he adds: "They can rest assured when it comes time to vote, they're not going to get mine again."

A new survey from Public Policy Polling suggests that Republicans could indeed pay a political price for opposing the extension of jobless aid. More than 50% of Ohio voters say they're less likely to vote for Sen. Rob Portman because of his opposition to extending the jobless aid, which he had previously voted to advance, according to the poll, which commissioned by liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change. 

But there's no sign on Capitol Hill that Republicans are worried about feeling the heat. Even if the Senate passes an extension, there's likely to be an even bigger fight in the House. And the political prospects for any action are dimming by the day.

"The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for sure, but no one is giving up" says Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Unemployment Law Project.