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US senators strike deal to extend jobless insurance

The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 11, 2014
The morning sun begins to rise in front of the US Capitol, on March 11, 2014 in Washington, DC

US senators struck a bipartisan deal Thursday that would reinstate emergency benefits for two million of America's long-term unemployed, easing a months-long congressional impasse.

A group of 10 senators thrashed out the agreement, which would extend for five more months the benefits that ran out in late 2013 amid congressional bickering over how the insurance would be paid for.

President Barack Obama had pushed hard for an extension of the emergency benefits last year but the effort fell apart, leaving 1.3 million jobless in the lurch when their standard 26 weeks of jobless aid expired.

Lawmakers stressed that the latest compromise is fully paid for, in part through "pension smoothing" provisions that were set to expire, and by an extension of customs user fees through 2024.

It would also include skills assessment and referral programs to help get people back into the workforce, and would bar all millionaires from collecting the unemployment insurance.

The cost of the current compromise was not immediately clear, but a proposed three-month extension that failed to pass Congress in December carried a price tag of $6.5 billion.

"We're not at the finish line yet, but this is a bipartisan breakthrough," Democratic Senator Jack Reed, an architect of the deal, said in a statement.

The measure will likely need to clear a 60-vote threshold in the 100-member Senate before going to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it could face opposition from fiscal conservatives.

But lawmakers sounded confident that the agreement they worked out had traction.

"Restoring this much-needed economic lifeline will help job seekers, boost our economy, and provide a little certainty to families, businesses, and the markets that Congress is capable of coming together to do the right thing," Reed added.

Senator Dean Heller, the agreement's chief Republican author, applauded colleagues on both sides.

"This deal extends these important benefits for five months, pays for them, and brings buy-in from both sides of the aisle," he said.

House Speaker John Boehner, who has said he would be open to extending the benefits if they were paid for in full, has not immediately reacted to the bipartisan compromise.