STERLING – Just days after more than 550 people in Lee and Whiteside counties lost their unemployment benefits, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted to continue debate on Democrats’ plan to extend those insurance payments for 3 months.
To even clear that small hurdle, Democrats needed help from six GOP lawmakers who voted with them after some last-minute arm-twisting by President Obama.
Extended unemployment insurance benefits ran out for about 82,000 Illinoisans on Dec. 28. The average weekly benefit lost was $312.77, according to an analysis done by the House Ways and Means Committee. An additional 89,000 will lose assistance in the first half of 2014 if Congress does not approve an extension.
In Whiteside County, 351 people lost their benefits on Dec. 28. In Lee County, 206 people saw their assistance come to a halt.
The federal program for long-term job seekers was a casualty of the last budget deal. Congress did not renew it after having extended it 11 times since 2008. For some recipients, the program had extended benefits for up to 47 weeks.
The new year is starting the way it ended – with partisan politics on big issues threatening to cause legislative gridlock.
While the House is expected to produce an even tougher fight over the $6.4 billion plan to extend benefits, 16th District Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger says he does not expect to see a bill anytime soon.
“Let’s see what happens in the Senate,” Kinzinger said when asked how he was leaning on the issue. “The big question right now is whether they can pass anything.”
Partisan lines are being drawn in the sand with mid-term elections looming in November. Legislators are finding that the benefits extension issue is a convenient tool to assess the state of the economy.
Kinzinger, whose district includes Lee County, sees the president’s push for the extension as a major concession.
“The president is basically admitting that the economy isn’t doing any better,” he said. “The economy is in terrible shape.”
Kinzinger says he won’t dismiss the possibility of voting for an extension bill if it reaches the House. But like most Republicans, he refuses to do so without a firm plan in place to pay for it.
“If he wants to extend the benefits, it’s on the president to find other things to cut to pay for it,” he said. “We’re $17 trillion in debt right now.”
Kinzinger said he and most of his GOP colleagues are staunch in their belief that the extensions were an emergency action that was never intended to be permanent.
“It was just meant to get people over the hump,” Kinzinger said.
Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos says in a statement that, based on what she sees in her district, economic conditions still constitute an emergency.
“With our economy still recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression, and with far too many families across our region looking hard for work, now is not the time to cut off unemployment insurance,” said Bustos, whose district includes Whiteside County.
Since she took office, her top priority has been job creation and economic growth, Bustos said. She has hosted several job fairs to help connect the jobless with employers in the 17th District and believes the long-term job seekers still need help.
“This important lifeline helps thousands of families across our region put food on the kitchen table and gas in the car while looking for work,” she said.
Bustos said she was encouraged by the bipartisanship that was shown to move forward with the issue in the Senate.
“I would like to see the House of Representatives do the same,” Bustos said.
The number of area people, by county, who lost extended unemployment benefits on Dec. 28.
Total in Sauk Valley: 1,138
Source: House Ways and Means Committee Democrats