Unemployment Emergency

Warning of an unemployment emergency, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday said Senate obstruction tactics have jeopardized jobless benefits and health insurance for out-of-work Americans. “The United States now is in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment is horrendously high. Long-term unemployment is at record levels. When people lose their unemployment benefits and those benefits are not extended, hundreds of thousands of families are going to be thrown into turmoil,” Sanders told a Capitol press conference. “People are going to wonder where they are going to get food to feed their families, where they’re going to get the basic necessities to sustain their kids. We are talking about an emergency situation.”

The insurance benefits are one of many government programs that expired on Sunday after. Without an extension, by the end of March nearly 1.2 million people will become ineligible for federal unemployment benefits, according to the National Employment Law Project.  The impasse also affects an estimated 500,000 unemployed who will be ineligible for help covering the cost of health care this month. In Vermont, health coverage for the uninsured without the federal subsidy will cost $1,183 a month instead of the $414 premium available under the expired program.

The holdup couldn’t come at a worse time as the nation’s workforce bears the brunt of the worst recession since the Great Depression. More than 4.6 million people filed unemployment claims in mid-February, the most recent data available. The number of Americans filing the first time for unemployment insurance last week surged to almost 500,000.

In addition to hurting those already jobless, some 2,000 federal transportation workers were being furloughed without pay on Monday because the Senate did not go along with the routine extension of existing programs.

Federal reimbursements to states for highway programs also were to be halted. The reimbursements amount to about $190 million a day. Without an extension, more than a million rural television viewers would not be able to watch local stations on their satellite systems.

Senate Republicans are using obstruction tactics at a record-setting pace. The Associated Press reported yesterday that there were 112 cloture votes last year and more than 40 in the first two months of 2010. The pace is more than triple the old record.

“The American people are increasingly concerned about the dysfunctionality of the Senate,” Sanders said. “What I want to know is where were the same people who voted for two wars but failed to pay for it, who voted for a prescription drug program without paying for it, who voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans without paying for it, and who voted to bail out Wall Street without paying for it. The hypocrisy is mind blowing.”

To watch the press conference, click here.

To view pictures from the press conference, click here.