President Obama arrives at the Asheville (N.C.) Regional Airport on Monday, Oct. 17, 2011. Obama will be back in North Carolina on Wednesday to speak on the economy. He's expected to again call on Congress to extend emergency unemployment benefits that expired last month. The issue has particular significance in North Carolina, where the state legislature cut unemployment benefits last year. / JOHN COUTLAKIS GANNETT
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the campaign spokesman for Thom Tillis.
WASHINGTON - With his visit to Raleigh on Wednesday to talk about the economy, President Obama is expected to repeat his call on Republicans to extend emergency unemployment insurance benefits that expired for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans more than two weeks ago in a state where the issue has significant resonance.
Benefits were cut off for thousands of the long-term jobless in Tar Heel State in July after the GOP-controlled legislature voted early last year to reduce state-provided benefits so they could speed up repayment of roughly $2.5 billion in debt owed to the federal government.
By cutting state benefits - which reduced maximum weekly benefits by $185 and limited the maximum number of weeks workers could draw benefits to 20 weeks - North Carolina fell below minimum federal standards for unemployment insurance. As a result, the long-term unemployed in the state became ineligible to receive federally funded extended benefits available to unemployed workers in other states who have been jobless for more than 26 weeks.
The state legislature's decision to reduce benefits now has become a central issue in what is likely to be one of the mostly hotly contested U.S. Senate races in the country in 2014, one in which the GOP is looking to unseat incumbent Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan.
In Washington, Congress remains at loggerheads over terms of renewing jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed after two Senate bills failed to extend benefits failed to clear procedural votes on Tuesday.
Hagan secured a provisionto restore unemployment benefits for three months in the stalled Senate legislation that would make residents in her state eligible for long-term benefits by permitting North Carolina to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Labor.
And the first-term senator, who saw her polling numbers dip in the aftermath of the Obama administration's bungled Affordable Care Act rollout, has gone on the offensive on the unemployment insurance issue. She is blaming North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and his fellow Republicans for supporting the reduction that has led to approximately 170,000 unemployed workers in the state missing out on benefits. Tillis also happens to the front-runner in the GOP primary to take on Hagan in November.
"This irresponsible and cold-hearted action by the General Assembly has been devastating to the thousands of individuals and families who are really struggling to make ends meet while looking for jobs," Hagan told reporters, adding that the reduction in unemployment benefits has led to $780 million being taken out of the state's economy.
Tillis and state Sen. Phil Berger, the top Republican in the North Carolina legislature, have countered that it's Hagan who dropped the ball by failing to win an exemption from federal requirements as four other states - Arkansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island -- had done during unemployment benefit extension negotiations in February 2012.
Hagan, however, says that when Tillis and Berger called on her to push for a waiver in December 2012, North Carolina hadn't yet passed its law, making it impossible for Congress to consider what at the time was "hypothetical" state legislation.
A spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who won office in 2012, declined to comment on where the governor stands on the North Carolina provision in the Senate bill.
"If and when the bill passes, we'll be happy to provide you with comments," said McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch.
But Tillis and fellow North Carolina Republicans have suggested the decision to reduce benefits was ultimately the right thing to do for the state.
North Carolina, which in the midst of the recession saw unemployment skyrocket and was forced to borrow heavily from the federal government to provide jobless benefits, has begun to whittle away at its debt. As a result of the legislation, the state is on track to pay off that debt by 2016, rather than the initial projection of 2019.
"Kay Hagan wants people who are unemployed to get a small, temporary check from the government. Thom Tillis wants them to be able to get a good paycheck and a job," said Jordan Shaw, Tillis' campaign spokesman. "Sen. Hagan and President Obama have gummed up every engine of our economy with job-killing policies like Obamacare and out-of-control debt."
North Carolina has seen its unemployment rate drop from 8.9% last July to 7.4% in December, according to the Labor Department. Government data shows that more than 20,000 have been added to payrolls in the state since the reduction in benefits. But Hagan and others note that some of the drop in the state's unemployment is likely due to frustrated job seekers permanently dropping out of the job market.
John Davis, a North Carolina political analyst and the publisher of the John Davis Political Report, said if the U.S. economy continues to make strides, the current battle on unemployment will likely have minimum effect on the North Carolina senate race come November.
"With something like unemployment in an improving - perhaps a dramatically improving -- employment situation in the United States and certainly in North Carolina, I'm not sure this could be an arrow in the quiver," Davis said.
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