WASHINGTON — It's been a few years since Robert Werth had to rely on unemployment benefits to make ends meet, but the 44-year-old computer programmer knows just how fast things can change with a dip in the economy.
“It's always in the back of your mind,” Werth said.
He lost his job at a Lincoln insurance company in 2009 and spent 10 months looking for work. After state-level unemployment insurance benefits ran out after 26 weeks, a federal emergency program extended his benefits and helped Werth pay his bills until he eventually found a job in Omaha.
But for thousands of Iowans and Nebraskans who are jobless now, such federal help is drying up. The emergency program expired at the end of December, and it is unclear whether Congress will act to revive it when lawmakers return from their holiday recess this week.
The Senate is expected to take a procedural vote this evening on whether to renew the program for another three months, but that proposal faces deep skepticism from Republicans on both sides of the Capitol.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., for example, does not support the proposed extension. Her spokesman, Joe Hack, said she is concerned that it adds $6.6 billion to the deficit.
“She is also disappointed it doesn't include any policy reforms to actually grow the economy and enable unemployed men and women to find good-paying jobs to support their families,” Hack said.
Democrats have described the benefits as a modest but vital safety net for those still struggling to find work in an era of high unemployment. While the economy has improved, many people remain out of work.
“We are their last lifeline,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “They're counting on us. How can we think about turning our backs on them?”
Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has championed an extension of the program. He noted that Congress has historically shown bipartisan support for assisting the long-term unemployed.
Many Republicans, however, say the emergency benefits have proved too costly, and even counterproductive.
Harkin's home state Republican colleague, Sen. Chuck Grassley, objected to extending benefits without cutting spending elsewhere in the budget.
“Policymakers really need to consider alternatives to another extension of what is supposed to be a temporary program, and ideally develop initiatives that help get more people back to work,” Grassley said.
He also said some cash-strapped states have objected that the federal program prohibits them from making changes to their unemployment programs.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., was still reviewing the proposal and how it could affect the national debt, said spokesman Nick Simpson.
Congress passed emergency federal benefits in 2008 at the onset of the Great Recession, tying the number of weeks allowed to the unemployment rate in a recipient's state.
Some unemployed workers were eligible for as many as 99 weeks of benefits in states where unemployment soared particularly high. Now the maximum is 73 weeks, however, and that's only in a couple of states.
Iowa and Nebraska have relatively low unemployment rates — 4.4 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively — so only 14 weeks of additional federal benefits would be available if the program is renewed. That would allow unemployed people in Nebraska and Iowa to receive checks for up to 40 weeks total, instead of 26 weeks.
Democrats recently unveiled a new analysis based on Labor Department statistics showing that more than 1.3 million Americans lost benefits with the expiration of the program that would have paid them a total of $408 million last week. They say pulling all that money out of circulation will only worsen the economic picture.
About 4,300 Iowans already have lost benefits that average $326 a week in that state, while 1,200 Nebraskans lost benefits that average $272 a week. As the weeks go by, more unemployed workers will exhaust their state benefits and find themselves without assistance.
Republicans note that the federal program has been extended again and again. Since 2008 it has cost $265 billion, much of which was simply piled onto the national debt.
They also have suggested that the additional benefits provide an incentive for people not to go back to work. They point to North Carolina, which pared back the number of weeks for state benefits and thereby lost access to the emergency federal program in the middle of last year. Since that time, the unemployment rate in that state has fallen from 8.9 percent to 7.4 percent.
Democrats counter that that's partly a reflection of the jobless simply giving up on seeking work, which means they are no longer included in the official unemployment rate.
In a floor speech last month, Harkin took umbrage at the suggestion that the program discouraged people from finding work. He cited comments by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that the benefits represented a disservice to recipients.
Harkin said weekly benefits of about $300 translate to about $15,000 per year — hardly enough, he said, to allow recipients to live “high on the hog.”
“I think it's just offensive to suggest that they're lazy and don't want to work,” Harkin said. “To me, it's just morally repugnant to conclude that they will somehow be miraculously better able to find a job if we simply let their kids go hungry.”
Werth, the computer programmer in Omaha, said the federal benefits didn't keep him from pinching pennies or eventually finding work. He gave up his apartment and moved into a friend's basement. Later, he took a less-than-desirable job before wrapping up a degree from Bellevue University and ultimately landing his current position with TD Ameritrade in Omaha.
Without the federal help, he said, he would have had to drain his retirement savings and sell all of his possessions.
Werth acknowledged that the federal benefits cost taxpayers, but he also noted that that money gets returned quickly to the economy by those receiving the checks.
“You're running out, you're paying your bills, you're getting what groceries you can, putting what little gas you can in your car and just trying to keep your head above water,” Werth said. “You're not sitting on that money.”