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Shaheen takes stand for jobless benefits

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen says that when the Senate returns to Capitol Hill today, she will continue her push to extend unemployment benefits to out-of-work residents of all 50 states.

The New Hampshire Democrat has taken a leading role in an effort to more fairly distribute extended unemployment benefits, saying the pain of being jobless knows no geographic boundaries.

Shaheen said in a telephone interview yesterday it is unclear if the unemployment benefit issue will be taken up by the Senate today, but she said action is expected shortly.

Last month, the U.S. House passed a bill to give an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to people in states where the jobless rate is at least 8.5 percent. That plan would do nothing for New Hampshire, where the unemployment rate for August was 6.9 percent.

A week ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced a bill to extend unemployment benefits by four weeks in all 50 states plus an additional 13 weeks of benefits, for a total of 17 weeks, in 27 states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5 percent.

The Reid-Baucus bill was ready to be passed by unanimous consent when Shaheen objected and held up the bill, saying it was unfair to workers in the 23 states with unemployment rates below 8.5 percent.

"Unemployed workers face equally severe challenges no matter what state they live in, and they should be given the support they need," Shaheen said.

"I was concerned at how New Hampshire was going to be affected by the legislation that came through the House and the bill in the Senate which would have provided a trigger for states that have over 8.5 percent unemployment," Shaheen said.

"If you are unemployed, you are in need to help and it doesn't matter if you are in New Hampshire or Michigan. You are still hurting," she said.

She authored a letter, also signed by 16 other Democratic senators, to Baucus and ranking finance committee member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pointing out that the challenges faced by unemployed workers in the 23 states with lower unemployment rates "are equally severe."

She then unveiled an amendment to extend benefits by 13 weeks to jobless workers in the 23 states with unemployment rates of below 8.5 percent and a total of 17 weeks for jobless workers in states with unemployment rates of 8.5 percent or higher.

Shaheen said her plan would pay for the additional benefits by tapping about $4 billion in interest and dividends income on payback by banks of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds.

It is unclear how Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., feels about the issue. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful yesterday.

Darrell Gates, New Hampshire's deputy employment security commissioner, said that if Shaheen's amendment fails, about 3,600 Granite Staters will exhaust their benefits by the end of December and, "At the end of March, we could have 6,000 to 10,000 in this state who no longer have unemployment benefits. That's the scary part."

He said Shaheen's bill would extend the maximum period for unemployment benefits in New Hampshire from 72 to 85 weeks.

Gates explained that the basic state unemployment program provides benefits for 26 weeks.

He said that about 1,600 Granite Staters are on the federal extended benefit program enacted in July 2008, which he said adds 20 additional weeks of benefits, for a total of 46 weeks.

Gates said the state has in recent months received additional extensions, "for a total of 72 weeks," including a "program of last resort" that was activated in August.

"And (Shaheen) is trying to extend an additional 13 weeks, for 85 weeks totally," Gates said.

Gates said that he wrote a letter recently to other state employment administrators "which said that the town, city or state you live in is irrelevant. The number of weeks you are unemployed is the common factor we should be looking to address the need."