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As Congress Leaves Town, Some Jobless Benefits Set To Expire

Job seekers attend at a career fair in Miami Lakes, Fla., in August. At the end of the year, 1.3 million Americans will lose their extended unemployment benefits.
Alan Diaz
Job seekers attend at a career fair in Miami Lakes, Fla., in August. At the end of the year, 1.3 million Americans will lose their extended unemployment benefits.

The House adjourned for the holidays Thursday night after passing a two-year budget agreement. But despite pressure from Democrats, the deal did not include an extension of the long-term unemployment benefit program.

While the issue may be reconsidered in January, more than a million Americans will lose their benefits between Christmas and New Year's.

Among them is Joan Boudro, who lost her job as an administrative assistant almost three years ago. Since then, she's found only temporary work for a few months at a time. Friends sometimes ask Boudro if she's out there "pounding the pavement." Lately, she says, it's hard finding an employer who will even look at her resume.

"There are no jobs. And that's where the big problem is: There are not enough jobs to go around," Boudro says.

Boudro has been relying on the extended unemployment benefits that the federal government has been offering since the beginning of the recession more than five years ago. The $363 a week is a lot less than she used to earn. But Boudro, a Republican who lives in New Berlin, Wis., says it's been a lifeline.

"It means that I can stay in my apartment. I can put food on the table. I can pay my bills," she says. "If unemployment stops, I'm going to have to move in with my son and his wife, and I really don't want to have to do that."

Boudro's unemployment benefits, along with those of 1.3 million others, will run out on Dec. 28. President Obama urged lawmakers to extend the temporary federal program, but he didn't insist that it be part of this week's mini-budget bargain.

And Republican House Speaker John Boehner says Obama didn't suggest alternative spending cuts to offset the program's $25 billion price tag.

"When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said we would clearly consider it, as long as it's paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy going again," Boehner says. "I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards."

The Obama administration notes that in the past, lawmakers haven't insisted that extended unemployment benefits be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget. White House economic adviser Jason Furman adds that while the job market is improving, there are still more than 4 million Americans who've been out of work for six months or more.

"We don't think that at a 7 percent unemployment rate, that now is the time to cut off their unemployment insurance," Furman says. "That doesn't just hurt those families; it hurts the economy by taking money out of their wallets that they otherwise would have spent."

The White House and congressional Democrats promise to renew their push for an extension in early January. But that's little comfort to those like Boudro who will see their checks cut off in just over two weeks.

"I don't understand why it's OK for Congress to go home and have a good Christmas when there's still things that are left to be done," she says.

The White House warns that without an extension, millions more Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits next year, before they find new work.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.