WASHINGTON— Federal checks could begin flowing again as early as next week to millions of jobless people who lost up to seven weeks of unemployment benefits in a congressional standoff.
President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law a restoration of benefits for people who have been out of work for six months or more. Congress approved the measure earlier in the day. The move ended an interruption that cut off payments averaging about $300 a week to 2½ million people who have been unable to find work in the aftermath of the nation's long and deep recession.
At stake are up to 73 weeks of federally financed benefits for people who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state jobless benefits. About half of the approximately 5 million people in the program have had their benefits cut off since its authorization expired June 2.
They are eligible for lump-sum retroactive payments that are typically delivered directly to their bank accounts or credited to state-issued debit cards. Many states have encouraged beneficiaries to keep updating their paperwork in hopes of speeding payments once the program was restored.
In some states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, the back payments should go out next week, officials said. In others, such as Nevada and North Carolina, it may take a few weeks for all of those eligible to receive benefits.
The 272-152 House vote Thursday sent the measure to the White House, where spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama would sign it as soon as it arrived. The House vote came less than 24 hours after a mostly party-line Senate vote Wednesday on the measure, which is just one piece of a larger Democratic jobs agenda that has otherwise mostly collapsed after months of battles with Republicans.
"Americans who are working day and night to get back on their feet and support their families in these tough economic times deserve more than obstruction and partisan game-playing," Obama said Wednesday night.
The measure is what remains of a Democratic effort launched in February to renew elements of last year's economic stimulus bill. But GOP opposition forced Democrats to drop $24 billion to help state governments avoid layoffs and higher taxes, as well as a package of expired tax cuts and a health insurance subsidy for the unemployed.
Wrangling over the larger measure consumed about four months. The jobless benefits portion picked up enough GOP support in the Senate — Maine moderates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — only after it was broken off as a stand-alone bill. It would have passed last month were it not for the death of Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; Byrd's replacement, Democrat Carte Goodwin, cast the key 60th vote Tuesday to defeat a GOP filibuster.
Most Republicans opposed the measure because it would add $34 billion to a national debt that has hit $13 trillion, arguing that it should have been paid for with cuts to other programs, such as unspent money from last year's economic stimulus bill, which is earning mixed grades at best from voters as unemployment stands at 9.5 percent nationwide.
Thirty-one House Republicans, about one in six, voted for the measure Thursday, while 10 Democrats opposed it.
"The other side says that these unemployment benefits stretching to almost two years are needed and must be added to the $13 trillion debt, even as they claim their trillion-dollar stimulus plan has been a success at creating millions of jobs," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La. "It makes you wonder if they're looking at the same jobs data as the rest of us."
Opposition marked a change of heart for many Republicans who had voted for deficit-financed unemployment benefits in the past, including twice during George W. Bush's administration. Earlier this year, Republicans twice allowed temporary unemployment measures to pass without asking for a roll call vote.
Opinion polls show that deficits and debt are of increasing concern to voters, especially Republicans' core conservative supporters and the tea party activists whose support the GOP is courting in hopes of retaking control of Congress.
Republicans winced in February when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a temporary benefits measure for several days, only to relent amid a wave of bad publicity. But just a few weeks later, all but a handful of Republicans were opposed to renewing benefits unless they were paid for with cuts elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget.
Democrats countered that many economists say unemployment benefits boost the economy since most beneficiaries spend them immediately. But any such effects are likely to be modest when measured against a $14.6 trillion economy.
"Unemployment benefits protect those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own but would lead to more jobs, higher wages and a stronger economy for all Americans," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "The money will be spent immediately on necessity, injecting demand into the economy, creating jobs."
The program is being renewed through the end of November. The White House signaled earlier this week that another extension may be sought if the jobless rate remains high, as many expect.