After months of attempts, U.S. senators passed legislation Monday to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed.
The measure now goes to the House, where its fate is less certain.
The bill, which is backed by the White House, gained approval from 51 Democrats, six Republicans and two independents. It includes a provision inserted by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., to restore North Carolina’s eligibility for federal emergency unemployment compensation — an action which comes months after members of the N.C. General Assembly approved a reduction in the length of unemployment aid and maximum weekly payouts.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, opposed the bill.
Hagan, who is engaged in her first bid for re-election, said in a statement before the vote that she was proud to support the measure.
“I worked hard to make it possible for our state to rejoin the program after the General Assembly’s reckless action cut off thousands of North Carolina families, even though North Carolina’s tax dollars continued to fund benefits for every state in the country,” Hagan said. “It’s past time to right this wrong, pass this bill and help the people of North Carolina get back on their feet as they look for work.”
According to Hagan’s office, approximately 170,000 jobless North Carolinians did not receive federal unemployment assistance in the second half of 2013 because of changes enacted by Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly.
The governor and state lawmakers described the changes as difficult, but necessary.
Committing savings from the cuts for paying down debt, McCrory and the GOP-dominated legislature opted last summer to reduce the amount of maximum weekly payouts to those on unemployment from $535 to $350 per week. They also reduced the maximum number of weeks that residents could draw on unemployment assistance from 12-to-20 weeks, down from the previous maximum of 26 weeks.
At the time when the reductions took effect last July, unemployment in North Carolina had reached 8.9 percent. Since then, McCrory and state lawmakers have touted the reductions as being integral to a “Carolina Comeback,” with the jobless rate dropping across the state to 6.7 percent as recently as February of this year.
According to a recent (Raleigh) News & Observer report, the plummet in numbers may be linked to a different factor. Some economists have argued that the change was actually due to a shrinkage in the state’s labor force—causing the jobless rate to drop while barely changing the number of those unemployed. That appears to be similar to the situation in Western North Carolina, Carolina Public Press has previously reported.
If approved by the House and signed into law, the Senate-passed bill would retroactively pay the unemployed for benefits missed to the end of December and expire in May.
The measure would cost $9.6 billion and be paid for by extending U.S. customs fees and by making changes to pension programs.
It remains to be seen if House members will vote on the measure. According to a Politico report, House Speaker John Boehner has said the Senate bill has “serious problems” and is “unworkable.”
Correction: The measure passed Monday, not Wednesday.