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Leading Republicans’ states among worst hit by jobless benefits cuts

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by Paul Lewis, theguardian.com

Senior Republican senators including Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul represent some of the states most affected by the controversial cancellation of long-term unemployment benefits, according to a Guardian analysis of data released this week.

Democrats, with strong backing from the White House, are orchestrating a major push to restore the benefits, which mostly apply to people who have been searching for work for more than six months.

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Around 1.3 million people lost unemployment insurance benefits last week, after a bipartisan budget deal on federal spending failed to include a reauthorisation of the program. A further 72,000 job-seekers are expected lose their benefits from Saturday, a rolling tally that will continue through the year.

Figures released this week by the Department of Labor, and analysed by House Democrats, provided the first state-by-state breakdown of the first tranche of American job-seekers whose benefits were cut off. The knock-on impact has been estimated to be costing the US economy up to a billion dollars a week.

Until now, Democrats have been putting pressure on Republicans from states with the highest overall rate of unemployment. However, Guardian analysis shows that states with the highest flat rates of unemployment have not necessarily been hit the hardest by the benefits cuts.

The variable impact can be explained by differences in regional labour markets and ratios of long-term, as opposed to short-term, unemployed, as well as variations in the way states administer the federal benefits program.

The result is differences across the country in the proportion of job-seekers who have seen their benefits cut over the last week.

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Of the 25 worst affected states, most are represented by Democratic senators. However, in addition to the 34 Democratic senators feeling the most pain as a result of of the benefits cuts, there are 16 Republicans.

They include high-profile figures such as Rubio, who represents Florida, where 73,000 job-seekers have lost, on average, $231 a week.

Four in every 1,000 people lost benefits in Kentucky, which has an 8.2% unemployment rate and is represented by McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Paul, who like Rubio is considered a potential presidential candidate for 2016.

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The data is particularly embarrassing for Paul, who in recent weeks has been one of the most visible defenders of the decision to cut the extended jobless benefit programme.

For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have authorised the extended insurance for job-seekers during times of exceptionally high unemployment.

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The unemployment rate has fallen in recent months, but at 7% it remains higher than average. Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House’s council of economic advisers, told reporters on Friday that the figures mask an exceptionally high rate of unemployment along long-term job-seekers who have been out of work for six months or more.

That rate currently stands at 2.6%. “To put that in perspective, [during] average or normal times we’d expect to see a [long-term] unemployment rate that was below 1%,” Stevenson said.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama used his weekly address to urge Congress to reinstate jobless benefits – specifically drawing attention to Republicans with high unemployment rates in their states.

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“Republicans in Congress went home for the holidays and let that lifeline expire,” the president said. “And for many of their constituents who are unemployed through no fault of their own, that decision will leave them with no income at all.”

A Senate vote on a bipartisan bill to reintroduce the benefits is expected early next week, possibly as soon as Monday. The bill has been authored by Democrat Jack Reed and Republican Dean Heller, who represent the two states – Rhode Island and Nevada respectively – with the highest overall unemployment rates, both at 9%. Their bill reintroduces the benefits for three months, allowing Congress time to find a more permanent fix.

The vote is expected to be tight. If a measure to expedite the bill is to receive the necessary 60 votes, at least four Republican senators, in addition to Heller, will probably need to vote for it.

The Guardian analysis provides insight into which Republican senators are likely to face most pressure from their constituents to support Reed-Heller bill.

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In addition to Heller, Republican senators from the states feeling the most pain since the benefits were cut off are Mark Kirk (Illinois), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Patrick Toomey (Pennsylvania) and Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson (both Georgia).

Of those, Murkowski and Isakson are perhaps most likely to be targeted by lobbyists seeking to persuade Republicans to reintroduce the benefits. That is because both were among the nine Republicans who broke with their party last month to vote with Democrats on the bipartisan budget deal.

Congressional sources have told the Guardian that Republicans who showed a willingness to cross the aisle to endorse the budget deal last month are on a shortlist of those being targeted by Democrats. Also on the list are GOP senators whose states have suffered particularly badly since the extended benefits program expired seven days ago.

Other Republicans who fall into both of those categories, making them them prime targets for supporters of the Reed-Heller bill, are Ron Johnson, whose state of Wyoming has a lower than average overall unemployment rate but, it seems, comparatively large numbers receiving long-term unemployment benefits, and Rob Portman of Ohio, where 39,100 jobseekers lost benefits last week.

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The battle over unemployment benefits is expected to dominate Capitol Hill when both houses return next week. On Tuesday, Obama will host several long-term job-seekers who lost their benefits in the East Room of the White House.

In his remarks on Saturday, Obama said he he would sign the Reed-Heller bill if it passed. “When Congress comes back to work this week, their first order of business should be making this right,” he said.

He added: “For decades, Republicans and Democrats put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers, even when the unemployment rate was lower than it is today. Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year’s resolution to do the right thing, and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now.”

[Image via Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons licensed]

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