The Labor Department said Friday that the unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent, the lowest in nearly four years. But much of the decline was due to people so discouraged about finding a job that they quit looking for one.
Democrats have tried to keep a flame burning under the issue. Ending the extended benefits would "deal a devastating blow to our economy," 42 Democratic senators wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., this past week.
The Congressional Budget Office said in a study last month that extending the current level of long-term unemployment benefits another year would add 300,000 jobs to the economy. The average benefit of about $300 a week tends to get spent quickly for food, rent and other basic necessities, the report said, stimulating the economy.
The liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that extended unemployment benefits lifted 2.3 million Americans out of poverty last year, including 600,000 children.
States provide the first 20 weeks to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits for eligible workers who are seeking jobs. When those are exhausted, federal benefits kick in for up to 47 more weeks, depending on the state's unemployment rate.
The higher a state's unemployment rate, the longer state residents can qualify for additional weeks of federal unemployment benefits. Only seven states with jobless rates of 9 percent or more now qualify for all 47 weeks.
Congress already cut back federal jobless benefits this year. Taken together with what states offer, the benefits could last up to 99 weeks. Cutting the maximum to 73 weeks has already cut off benefits to about 500,000 people.
Opponents of benefit extensions argue that they can be a disincentive for taking a job.
"Prolonged benefits lead some unemployed workers to spend too much time looking for jobs that they would prefer to find, rather than focusing on jobs that they are more likely to find," said James Sherk, a labor policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, noted that unemployment checks add up to about $15,000 a year. "That's poverty level," he said. "This is not something people just want to continue on, they want to get jobs."