Senate throws a lifeline to the jobless

Lawmakers pass bill extending unemployment benefits by up to 20 weeks. Legislation also extends homebuyer tax credit into next year.

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By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- After weeks of partisan debate, the Senate voted on Wednesday to lengthen unemployment benefits by up to 20 weeks and to extend the $8,000 homebuyer tax credit.

The closely watched legislation would extend jobless benefits in all states by 14 weeks. Those that live in states with unemployment greater than 8.5% would receive an additional six weeks. The proposal would be funded by extending a longstanding federal unemployment tax on employers through June 30, 2011.

The measure would apply to those whose benefits will run out by Dec. 31, which is nearly two million people, according to Senate estimates. Those whose checks have already stopped would be able to reapply for another round.

The vote was 98 to 0.

"With 15 million Americans still unemployed and vying for just three million available jobs, we did the right thing today by passing this bill and doing it in a fiscally responsible way," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who helped craft the bill. "Today, we gave unemployed Americans the chance they need to get back on their feet, get through this tough time and get working again."

The measure now moves to the House, which passed its own benefits extension in September, giving an additional 13 weeks in high-unemployment states. The two bills must now be reconciled, though the House is expected to support the Senate's version.

"Now that this legislation has passed the Senate, I will bring it to the House Floor for a vote as early as tomorrow," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

The bill would then move to the White House for the president's signature. Last week, the administration said it supports extending benefits.

7,000 a day losing benefits

The Senate has been bickering over the details since September, and that cost more than 200,000 people their benefits. Some 7,000 unemployed Americans run out of benefits each day, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Millions of Americans are now depending on unemployment benefits, as the unemployment rate continues to soar. The unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 9.8% in September, and is expected to go even higher when the October numbers are released on Friday.

More than one in three people who are unemployed have been out of work for at least six months, according to the law project.

Lawmakers twice lengthened the time people can receive checks to as much as 79 weeks, depending on the state.

Tax break for buying a home

The legislation also would extend the $8,000 homebuyer tax credit to contracts signed by April 30 and closed by June 30. The controversial credit, which many say has boosted home sales in recent months, was set to expire after Nov. 30.

The Senate's bill also creates a $6,500 credit for those who buy a home after living in their current house at least five years. That measure would apply to contracts signed by April 30 and closed by June 30. The current credit defines a first-time homebuyer as someone who has not owned a residence within the past three years.

The credit would be available only for the purchase of principal residences priced at $800,000 or less.

The Senate bill would raise the adjusted gross income cap to $125,000 for single filers and $225,000 for joint filers. The amount of the credit currently begins to phase out for taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is more than $75,000, or $150,000 for joint filers.

"It's gonna put people back to work, the home builders, put people in the real estate business," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "The kind of jobs that can make a difference."

The extension will cost $10.8 billion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Through mid-September, 1.4 million tax returns had qualified for the credit, according to the IRS. Some portion of those returns, which the IRS couldn't specify, represents buyers who took advantage of an earlier version of the tax credit, which was only worth $7,500 and has to be repaid over time.

By the end of November, the credit will have been used by 1.8 million homebuyers, at least 355,000 of whom would not have bought a house without the tax break, according to estimates by the National Association of Realtors.

"The data on the present home buyer tax credit show that the credit has had its intended impact -- sales have jumped in recent months to a projected 5.1 million for the year and housing inventory has been trimmed, thus stabilizing home prices noticeably," said Ron Phipps, the association's first vice president, in Senate testimony last month.

The credit, however, has also posed many problems. Critics say it's a waste of money because most of those claiming the credit would have bought homes anyway.

It's also been the target of fraud. Some 74,000 people claimed more than $500 million in credits even though they may not be first-time homeowners, according to Treasury officials. And more than 580 children, including some as young as 4-years-old, have claimed the credit.

"Some key controls were missing to prevent an individual from erroneously or fraudulently claiming the Credit and receiving an erroneous refund of up to $8,000," said J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration, before a House subcommittee last month.

CNN Radio Capitol Hill correspondent Lisa Desjardins contributed to this report. To top of page

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