WASHINGTON - Since the recession began in December, 2007, Congress has extended the duration of weekly unemployment benefits for the jobless three times. Now, the lawmakers may have reached their limit.
They are quietly drawing the line at 99 weeks of aid, a mark that hundreds of thousands of Americans have already reached. In coming months, the number of those who will receive their final government check is projected to top 1 million.
It's a deadline that has rarely been mentioned in recent debates over jobless benefits, in which Republicans have delayed aid because of cost concerns. The deadline hasn't been lost on Teauna Stephney, 39, a single mother from Bothell, Wash., who said she could become homeless once her $407 weekly checks stop in June.
"What are people like me supposed to do?" asked Ms. Stephney, who said almost two years of benefits haven't proved long enough for her to find work.
Democrats who have pushed through the past extensions agree there's insufficient backing to go beyond 99 weeks, largely because of mounting concern over the federal deficit, projected to reach $1.5 trillion this year.
"You can't go on forever," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.), whose panel oversees the benefits program. "I think 99 weeks is sufficient," he said.
For Democrats, allowing the ranks of those who lose their aid to swell carries risks in November's elections.
"They're damned if they do and damned if they don't," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. Voters are "sensitive these days to spending and deficit issues and yet there are going to be people who need help, and if the administration ignores them, they'll look rather callous."
Unemployment aid has become one of the federal budget's fastest-growing components, with costs this year likely to reach $200 billion.
Since the recession began, aid extensions added 53 weeks of assistance to the 46 weeks that had been in place. About 11 million Americans, roughly 70 percent of the nation's jobless, in March received unemployment checks averaging $320 per week.
The challenge for lawmakers is that while benefits have reached record lengths, so has long-term unemployment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 44 percent of the jobless have been out of work for at least six months, the biggest share since the government began keeping track in 1948.
The states, not the federal government, track how many exhaust their unemployment benefits, said Labor Department spokesman Matthew Wald. In Florida, 130,000 are no longer eligible as are about 30,000 Ohioans.