WASHINGTON — Lawmakers took to the airwaves Sunday to argue about extending long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans who were cut off last month, a politically sensitive issue in an election year.

Democrats urged their Republican counterparts to join in granting emergency unemployment benefits. Republicans countered that they want to explore other options, including new job training initiatives. Both sides intend to highlight the dispute during this year’s midterm election campaigns.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said Senate Democrats plan to focus on the middle class this year by helping laid-off Americans whose unemployment benefits expired last month.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Reid said. “We have long-term unemployment. That’s why the American people support this.”

A bipartisan proposal by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., would give the unemployed a three-month extension that would cost an estimated $6 billion.

The measure faces a test vote Monday. Reed expects to get the 60 votes needed to open floor debate, but prospects for getting the bill through the Republican-led House are dim.


Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. said he would not vote to bring the legislation to the floor “unless senators have an opportunity to debate and vote on the many good ideas for helping unemployed Americans find a job.”

President Obama has urged lawmakers to vote on extending the benefits as their first order of business.

The federal government and the states jointly provide up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, paid from employer payroll taxes, to people who lose their jobs. During periods of high unemployment, Congress has traditionally expanded the program to help those unable to find work.

But last year, with a bitterly divided Congress refusing to step in, anyone who was collecting unemployment for more than 26 weeks lost benefits Dec. 28.

About 1.3 million people were immediately affected, and millions more were expected to reach the limit this year. Unless Congress acts, the Obama administration estimates that 4.9 million people could lose benefits by the end of 2014.

California, Nevada, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are among the states with significantly higher-than-average percentages of long-term-unemployed people.

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