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Jobless held hostage by partisans in Congress

More than 3.7 million jobless Americans may be learning how it feels to fruitlessly search for work, find meals at a food pantry, and skip paying bills for the first time.

Out of work for six months or more, they are the long-term unemployed, about two million of whom can’t get extended unemployment benefits because House Speaker John Boehner won’t post a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate.

Federal unemployment funds traditionally kicked in once a worker exhausted his state benefits, typically after 26 weeks. But that provision wasn’t included in the budget deal that Democrats and Republicans agreed to in December, and now the Republicans are stonewalling.

The unemployed have become hostages in Congress’ partisan warfare. In the past, extended unemployment benefits were provided if the unemployment rate reached 5.6 percent, but House Republicans in campaign mode won’t budge even with unemployment now at 6.7 percent.

Boehner says the benefits must be paid for elsewhere in the budget, but the Senate bill does that. He says the extension should help create jobs, but it does that too, by providing income that allows landlords to get rent, and utilities and food stores to get paid. The benefits would add $408 million a week to the economy. That’s $25 million in Pennsylvania and $34 million in New Jersey.

Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., is among those trying to use jobless benefits as leverage. He’ll trade his vote for support of the Keystone XL pipeline, a tax break for medical-device manufacturers, and a longer workweek. By his logic, big energy, big meds and big business are more important than people on the edge of financial ruin.

These are people who want to work. In fact, they can’t get benefits if they aren’t seeking employment.

Fortunately, other Republicans acknowledge that reality, including three New Jersey representatives: Frank LoBiondo, who is leading extension efforts in the House, Jon Runyan, and Chris Smith. The jobless must hope some sense can be talked into Dent and other Republicans soon because they can’t wait much longer.

This editorial appeared recently in the The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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