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About 20 years ago, during an earlier recession, Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., traveled to an unemployment office in the town of Madison Heights in his district, accompanied by a reporter.
“I said to him, just talk to people at random, so it was totally unrehearsed, and he was struck by the variety of occupations represented there and the variety of stories,” Levin recalled in an interview this week. “What it did was to humanize the story and put a face on it, and I think that needs to be done again.”
That visit had a lasting effect. Since then, Levin has emerged as one of Capitol Hill’s most outspoken backers of unemployment insurance, which keeps laid-off workers afloat in times of economic turmoil while they look for another job.
In 2008, Levin helped negotiate legislation granting emergency benefits to long-term unemployed workers. To deal with the longest downturn since the Depression, Congress has extended those additional benefits 10 times since then, according to the National Employment Law Project. The most recent extension was in February, when Congress scaled back the expanded aid.
That assistance is now scheduled to run out at the end of the year, and Levin — the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee — is tirelessly banging the drum to make sure that doesn’t happen. But there has been little public conversation about another extension, even as talk of the approaching fiscal cliff dominates headlines.
Levin says he wants to see a straight extension through the end of next year to give long-term jobless workers more time to get back on their feet. About 5 million of 12.3 million unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than six months, one of the highest ratios on record.
Several Republicans suggested this week that they would hesitate to approve such a long extension.
“It’s a fundamental principle that those programs are temporary and they’ve been extended considerably,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the Budget Committee’s ranking member. “Definitely we need to be moving toward winding them down in a smart way.”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, did not rule out the possibility of another extension. But he said he wants to reduce opportunities for beneficiaries to put off finding work while continuing to cash the checks.