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Finally, some hope for jobless aid

Bipartisan talks have started up again to restore benefits to the long-term unemployed.
A job seeker (L) makes her pitch to a recruiter while others wait their turn at the Colorado Hospital Association health care career fair in Denver April 9, 2013.
A job seeker (L) makes her pitch to a recruiter while others wait their turn at the Colorado Hospital Association health care career fair in Denver April 9, 2013.

President Obama struck a conciliatory tone in Tuesday's State of the Union address. But there was one demand that he tried to hammer home with force: extending long-term unemployment benefits, which expired Dec. 31. "Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance," he said to applause from his Democratic colleagues. "Give them that chance."

His remarks heartened members of Congress who've struggled to keep the issue alive as talks over jobless aid have stalled; some even brought unemployed workers as their guests to Tuesday's speech. In recent days, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed has renewed talks with GOP Sens. Dean Heller and Susan Collins to pull together a new proposal for a three-month extension that would be paid for.

Such a plan would back away from earlier Democratic demands for a year-long extension, or a shorter extension without offets, both of which Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster. But those close to the negotations say that real progress is being made on a new bill, which could surface as soon as Friday morning in the Senate and come up for a vote early next week. 

The main idea under consideration would offset an estimated $6 billion in benefits with an extension of pension changes that were originally incorporated into the 2012 highway funding bill. The change, known as "pension smoothing," raises money by reducing the contributions that private companies make to the federal government to insure their workers' pensions. The Washington Post first reported the development on Tuesday.

Some have criticized the provision as a budget gimmick, arguing that the short-term gains risk future costs. But Republicans themselves have supported the idea in the past, proposing it as an offset for repealing Obamacare's medical device tax last fall, one Democratic aide pointed out. "We were working hard before SOTU, we’re still working hard and we hope to get it done soon," the aide added.

An estimated 1.3 million unemployed workers lost their federal benefits when 2013 ended. Unless Congress acts before the end of January, an additional 310,000 will be cut off from aid, as their state benefits will expire without any federal backstop. Most Republicans have been reluctant to go along, though House Speaker John Boehner said he'd consider proposals that are paid for. 

Advocates for the unemployed say they're still extremely concerned about the fate of the legislation and the ongoing impact on the unemployed. "There are serious negotiations going on and some people are expressing cautious optimism, but we need to see a breakthrough soon. Very soon," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project.