WASHINGTON - With unemployment lines growing even as the recession eases its grip, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to extend jobless benefits for those who risk exhausting them.
By a vote of 331 to 83, the House passed a measure that would extend jobless benefits in hard-hit states through the end of the year.
The U.S. Senate has yet to consider a version of the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the body would take up the legislation very, very quickly.
The unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent in August, the highest figure since 1983, and is expected to remain high into next year even as the economy recovers. Roughly one-third of the unemployed have been out of work for more than 6 months, according to Labor Department data.
Idled workers are typically eligible for up to 26 weeks of payments to cover expenses as they look for another job. Congress has extended that limit twice already to help those who lost their jobs in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Some workers are now eligible for up to 79 weeks of unemployment benefits.
But even that will not be enough for up to 400,000 workers who could exhaust their benefits by the end of the month.
Providing these Americans with a modest economic lifeline is not only the humane thing to do, but it's in the economic interest of the country, said Democratic Representative Jim McDermott, the bill's sponsor.
Payments averaged $308 per week in August, according to the Labor Department.
McDermott's bill would cover roughly 300,000 people whose benefits are projected to expire by the end of September and 1 million whose benefits would expire before the end of the year.
It would extend benefits by 13 weeks in states where the unemployment rate is above 8.5 percent.
Currently 27 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have unemployment rates above that level, and others could become eligible if their unemployment rates climb.
The bill would extend a tax on employers and crack down on overpayments to avoid adding to the budget deficit, McDermott said.
In the Senate, lawmakers are working on legislation that would extend benefits for workers in all states, not just those targeted in McDermott's bill, said an aide to Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus.
(Editing by David Alexander and Paul Simao)