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As Congress stalls, more jobless workers enter free fall

The longer Congress waits, the more jobless workers are losing their unemployment benefits.
Job fair for unemployed or underemployed workers over 50
Potential job seekers speak with employers at a job fair in New Yory City on November 20, 2013.

While Congress bickers over whether to continue her unemployment checks, Kristi Jamison has decided to swallow her pride and apply for food stamps.

Less than four months ago, Jamison, 39, was the executive director of a social-services agency in Portland, earning $64,000 a year. But Congress's failure to stop sequestration forced local budget cuts that suddenly wiped out her organization's funding, forcing Jamison to lay off her entire staff—and herself. 

Now Congress' failure to act has cut off her unemployment benefits, too. In early January, Jamison became one of the estimated 310,000 Americans who will lose their aid by the end of the month as their state benefits expire, with no federal aid to extend them. That's on top of the 1.3 million Americans who have already lost their unemployment insurance on Dec. 28.

"I don't think they understand like a Jenga game—it just takes one thing and it's like everything crashes," says Jamison, who supports an 18-year-old son and is now struggling to make her car payments.

The deadlock in Washington is maddeningly familiar: Despite an early glint of bipartisan compromise, legislation to extend jobless aid has stalled in the Senate as Republicans have threatened to filibuster both short- and long-term extensions. Demanding that the program be paid for, Republicans argue that Democrats have shut out them out of the process. The road to passage in the House is even more politically treacherous.

First enacted in 2008, the emergency federal program was never meant to be permanent, and the federal benefits have already been extended for longer than ever before. That has fueled conservative opposition to continuing the aid at all, with members like Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul denouncing the program for being a "disservice" to the unemployed by being an disincentive to work. Democrats point out that long-term unemployment is far higher than when the government has previously ended the program, slamming Republicans for blocking the extension.

The gridlock has real consequences outside the Beltway. The longer Congress waits, the more jobless workers are losing their unemployment benefits. By the end of March, a total of 2.2 million Americans will have their lost their unemployment benefits without a federal extension, according to figures from the Department of Labor.

They include Vince Coniglio, an IT professional from central Ohio, who has been unemployed for more than a year and couldn't even find a minimum wage job at the Dollar General down the street. "You're not going to be happy here," the manager told him. "How can you go from $85,000 to $7.85 an hour?"

Coniglio has followed up with more than 600 job contacts and positions but worries his age is working against him. "I'm 53, and I walk with a limp from a motorcycle wreck decades ago," he says. At this point, he even jokes with his family that he might be better off behind bars if he doesn't find a job, where he'd at least get free food and medical care.

"If it comes down you guys being destitute because of me, I'll pick the federal crime that's the easiest," Coniglio tells his wife and 10-year-old stepdaughter. "It's sad to say you've got to think that way," he adds. 

Extending jobless aid remains broadly popular with the American public: A Quinnipiac poll last week showed that voters supported an extension 58% to 37%. Among the jobless, there's deep anger, frustration, and disillusionment with Congress's inaction—and plenty of fingerpointing at both parties. 

"I haven't heard a lot of congressmen holding town halls and begging for constituents to tell their stories. They don't want to hear it," says Jamison. She isn't happy with the conservative flank of the GOP but also believes Democrats have lost the trust of the American public. "They're both to blame," she concludes. 

The fight over Senate procedure has also obscured the issues at hand. Republicans have fought with Democrats over voting on what Majority Leader Harry Reid describes as "poison-pill amendments" to pay for the legislation. The Senate GOP has refused to take the threat of a filibuster off the table.

"Put it out there what exactly everybody wants. What do these Republicans want, that the Democrats don't want to give up?  I want to know what the fight is," says Consiglio. "It's 'he said, she said'—everyone wants to point a finger."

Carl Smith, whose unemployment benefits ran out last month, believes Reid was asking for too much by proposing a 11.5-month extension instead of a three-month one and isn't holding out hope for a deal. "I didn't have a whole lot of hope with the House, but I think that pushed it over, it truly did," says Smith, 59, who was laid off after 31 years working as a logistics expert at a Ohio defense contractor. 

Many aren't feeling hopeful that things will turn around any time soon—either in Congress or the economy as a whole. Among the unemployed, consumer confidence dropped from 39.2 to 35.2 in the first two weeks of January—"the steepest two-week decline in absolute terms since the summer"—according to data from Hamilton Place Strategies and CivicScience. 

Danny Pacheco, 34, is just hoping he can scrape together enough for diapers and baby food for his five-month-old infant. He lost his federal unemployed benefits in December after nearly a year and a half of looking for work and going back to college to work toward finishing his Bachelor's degree. 

"It's a thousand people vying for three jobs," says Pacheco, who lives in Rhode Island, which has the country's second highest unemployment rate. "It's the same thing over and over again."