James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/03/2010 05:29:45 PM PST

Omar Heinemann of San Bernardino has four kids, two master’s degrees and 20 years of experience in the aerospace industry.

But he’s been out of work for nearly a year and has run out of unemployment benefits. He won’t get any more checks in the mail unless Congress votes to let him and millions more Americans apply for extended federal unemployment benefits.

“It’s not just me, it’s thousands and thousands of people,” said Heinemann, an engineer who used to work for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “I see lines and lines for jobs that pay only $8 an hour. And a lot of people are like me – they’re professionals with master’s degrees and Ph.Ds who are not getting picked.”

Indeed, the latest federal jobs report shows unemployment climbed in November and more than 6.3 million Americans have been out of work for at least six months. Despite that, Congress has yet to approve a benefits extension, meaning about 2 million Americans – including more than 410,000 Californians – have lost or could lose benefits this month. Millions more would lose benefits in the first few months of 2011.

Congress has yet to act, as Republicans and Democrats say they fundamentally disagree about how an extension should be paid for: Republicans say they want to make spending cuts to other programs to offset the cost of the extension, while Democrats say the extension is emergency spending that shouldn’t have to be offset.

“During these difficult times, we want to do what we can to help our fellow citizens meet their needs,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas. “At the same time, it’s critical to our economic recovery that any expansion of government programs not further add to our debt.”

Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, calls that hypocritical. While Republicans are demanding spending cuts to pay for an unemployment benefits extension, they’re also pushing for an extension of tax breaks for families making more than $250,000 per year.

“Republicans say extending benefits will increase the deficit, yet at the same time they want to make permanent tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans,” Baca said. “If we extend the tax cuts for the rich, it will add $700 billion to our deficit. Republicans need to stop playing games with the well-being of American families, and work with Democrats and the administration to pass an extension of unemployment benefits immediately.”

Baca said the benefit extension is especially important because so many Americans are set to lose benefits during the holiday season.

Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, said Republicans don’t want to leave people out in the cold and that Democrats are standing in the way of the extension.

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