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Jobless benefits extension passes Senate test

By Tami Luhby, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More than 2.5 million unemployed Americans are one step closer to having their unemployment benefits restored.

A bill that would push back the deadline to file for extended unemployment benefits until the end of November passed a key procedural hurdle in the Senate Tuesday. The vote was 60-40, the minimum margin needed to end debate on the measure.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Republicans of Maine, switched sides to support the bill. Carte Goodwin, the newly appointed Democratic senator from West Virginia who replaced the late Robert Byrd, gave his party the 60th vote.

The Senate could put its final stamp of approval on the bill on Wednesday, after which it would go back to the House. It is expected to pass both chambers and be sent to President Obama for his signature. Final passage in the Senate requires just 51 votes.

On Monday, Obama called on the Senate to pass the extension, saying the unemployed should not be held hostage to politics. He praised lawmakers after the vote.

"Today marks an important step toward passing the unemployment insurance extension which is critical to millions of Americans fighting to find a job, put food on the table and make ends meet during this tough economic time," he said.

The jobless stopped getting their checks in early June, after Congress failed to extend the deadline to apply for benefits. Senate Republicans, as well as Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, prevented the legislation's passage, saying it should be paid for first. They suggested covering the $34 billion tab with unused stimulus money, a step the Senate Democratic leadership rejected.

Federal unemployment payments, which last up to 73 weeks, kick in after the state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. These federal benefits are divided into tiers, and the jobless must apply each time they move into a new tier.

The payments will be retroactive to the previous deadline of June 2. But it could take up to a month for states to start sending the checks again, experts said.

Lynda Kahn of Coral Springs, Fla., can't wait to get that check. She stopped getting benefits last week and applied for Medicaid, only to be turned down because she doesn't have dependent children. But she did get a supermarket gift card from a local charity to supplement her $200 a month food stamp allotment.

Kahn depends on her unemployment check, which was $275 a week plus a $25 stimulus-funded supplement that will be discontinued. She lost her job as a manager for a doctor's office last August.

"It covers my mortgage payment," she said.

Similarly, Michael Tait of Locust Grove, Va., hopes that Congress passes the extension before he runs out of benefits next week. He receives $410 plus the $25 supplemental.

Since he lost his job as a vice president at a water treatment company in January, he has applied for more than 200 jobs, including at a gas station, supermarket and pharmacy, with no success. The 64-year-old was finally forced to apply early for Social Security in late June, which he didn't want to do since he will lose $252 a month for not waiting until his full retirement age of 66.

If Congress extends the deadline, Tait and his wife won't have to dip into their retirement savings and will be able to catch up on some bills.

"We wouldn't have to live week to week," he said. To top of page

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