For 963 unemployed people in Berkshire County, the holiday season may feel a lot colder in the wake of Thursday's budget vote in Congress.
Those county residents have been unemployed longer than 30 weeks -- and they will no longer be eligible for unemployment insurance after Dec. 28.
The budget deal, which won easy approval in the House on Thursday evening, will keep the government running and avoid a shutdown, but it also will bring an end to the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed. An agreement was hammered out this week by leaders from both parties in the House and Senate.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, was among 174 Democratic representatives who signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner calling for the benefits to be extended, but said he would still vote for the deal.
He preferred making the deal over going through with new sequestration cuts set to take effect. Those cuts would have impacted billions of dollars for defense and other vital functions from public housing to the state and energy departments to NASA.
Neal said the budget deal will restore funding to programs like Head Start, which had experienced reductions from earlier sequestration cuts and was facing more. The deal cuts Medicare spending, raises retirement contributions for federal retirees, doubles airport security fees and limits cost of living increases for some military retirees.
"This is an opportunity to build some confidence between the two parties," Neal said. "I'm going to vote for it. I think it's a plausible step forward."
Neal also said he was "disgruntled" about the decision not to extend unemployment benefits.
"If I were writing the bill or Dems were writing the bill, unemployment [insurance] would have been included," Neal said. "I think the Republican position is cruel," Neal said.
Republican leaders indicated over the past two weeks in negotiations with Democratic Senate leaders that they wouldn't support extending unemployment benefits.
Referring to the federal extensions of unemployment benefits, which began in 2008 in response to the economic collapse, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told The Associated Press earlier this month "these have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been we need to go back to normal here at some point."
Neal said he believed "the federal budget outlook has improved markedly over the last year." A new deal could be worked on next year to renew unemployment benefits for those who have been unemployed longer than seven and a half months, he said, though the prospects for that are uncertain.
On Thursday, a new report by the U.S. Department of Labor showed that approximately 68,000 more people sought unemployment benefits last week for a total of 368,000 more people seeking unemployment benefits. That was the first negative hiring report after months of good news on the labor front, including one which showed about 203,000 jobs were added last month.
More than 3.8 million Americans are collecting unemployment insurance.
Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the senator had not yet decided on whether to vote for the budget deal. Markey expressed "disappointment" a day earlier on the decision to strip unemployment benefits away from the long-term unemployed. However, he said the budget deal was a good "first step."
Barry said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said that extending unemployment benefits will be a priority of the Senate next year. Congress is not expected to return to session until Jan. 6 and any agreement would need the approval of the House.
"Republicans appear intransigent on the issue," Neal said. "It's an uphill battle."
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could not be reached for comment.
Some help is on the way.
Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday announced $1.7 million in grants to agencies which help the homeless find employment. In Berkshire County, the Corporation for Public Management will receive $230,000 to support the Western Homeless Employment Network.
To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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