Tester proposes end to extra $25 in unemployment benefits

Lee State Bureau

by Charles S. Johnson

HELENA – Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday he is trying to end a temporary $25-a-week extra unemployment benefit for jobless Americans that's been in place for 16 months because of growing national concern about the federal deficit and debt.

He made the proposal in an amendment this week.

"The whole idea is it's really saving $6 billion in taxpayers' money without yanking the carpet out from Americans looking for work," Tester said in a telephone interview.

The $25-per-week additional payment to regular unemployment benefits was part of the 2009 federal stimulus act and has been extended four times since then.

The average unemployment payment nationally is now $309 a week, so the $25 reduction would amount to about an 8 percent cut in unemployment compensation received by 15 million jobless Americans.

Tester said he was looking for opportunities to save money, and "saving money is always a difficult decision."

"It will lead to some pretty significant savings," he said.

Asked about the impact on jobless people receiving $25 a week less in their unemployment benefits, he said:

"Twenty-five bucks is twenty-five bucks. It was a temporary addition. Everybody's concerned about the debt. It's the No. 1 issue when I come home."

The Washington Post quoted Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the nonprofit National Employment Law Project, who criticized Tester's proposal.

"It's shocking what their priorities are," Emsellem was quoted as saying. "Unemployment is still close to 10 percent, and there's no indication that it's coming down anytime soon."

Emsellem wondered why Congress apparently doesn't have any similar plans to trim back expired tax breaks for businesses and individuals.

Tester said he didn't know if the Democratic caucus in the Senate would support his idea or whether President Barack Obama would.

"This is a real step," Tester said. "This is not some politician pledging not to do earmarks."

That was a reference to Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who has pledged not to put in any requests for earmarked spending requests for a year.

Obama had urged Congress to spend more money on the economy, but it ran into problems in a Senate where some Democrats joined Republicans in an expression of concern over growing federal deficits.

Tester's amendment will become part of a proposal that fellow Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus introduced Wednesday. Baucus offered the modified bill after Republican blocked the previous measure that would have created jobs, extended tax cuts and supported programs to help Americans find work, according to a release from the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus heads.

Baucus said he and others heard concerns of other senators and adjusted the substitute measure accordingly.