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With 800,000 Unemployed Set to Lose Benefits, Congress Leaves Town

While Congress managed to pass a $700 billion financial-industry bailout before breaking for over a month to campaign, legislation to extend unemployment aid for 800,000 laid-off workers did not make the cut. Their benefits will dry up as soon as this Sunday.

Negotiations late yesterday in the Senate for streamlined passage of a bill to extend emergency jobless relief by at least seven weeks failed when Republicans balked. By evening, most senators had left town on election recess. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the Senate would reconvene the week of Nov. 17.

After approving the bailout today, the House overwhelmingly passed (368-28) a jobless benefits extension essentially identical to the Senate version on an accelerated vote. Speaking on the floor in support of the bill, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) said he regretted that it was “a little bit late,” but “I only hope the Senate is listening.”

The quick passage could provide momentum for an extension in a lame-duck Senate. Had the House reverted to lengthier deliberations, to be taken up after the elections, the fate of federal unemployment aid would certainly be shakier, Democratic congressional aides told ProPublica.

A spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Don Stewart, said Republicans had refused an emergency vote on a benefits bill because Democrats gave no chance for debate or amendment. “It’s a huge spending bill,” he said. The proposal has been estimated to cost $6 billion.

The Senate bill had previously been considered and rejected by Republicans as part of a larger economic stimulus package. Sen. Reid’s office told ProPublica that he had tried to attach the unemployment aid extension to the financial bailout passed by the Senate Wednesday night. But Stewart said no formal unemployment insurance amendment had been proposed.

He said Republicans disagreed over the duration of any federal unemployment aid and how much should be given to each state. Asked for details of a formula Sen. McConnell or any party member could live with, Stewart provided none. He said that, because the Senate is on break until mid-November, “there is no action to be had until that point.”

Today’s monthly unemployment update from the federal government showed the U.S. economy had shed jobs for the ninth straight month in September, with 760,000 jobs lost throughout the private sector in 2008.  The rate of unemployment remained constant at 6.1 percent, or 9.5 million people.

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