Updated May 27 at 5:27pm

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Senate may vote soon on jobless benefits

Proposal would extend eligibility by 20 more weeks in R.I.

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WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats said Thursday they have agreed to a compromise that would allow millions of long-term unemployed Americans in Rhode Island and elsewhere to keep receiving jobless benefits, which could pave the way for a vote as soon as next week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the deal would extend unemployment benefits by up to 20 weeks in Rhode Island and other states with unemployment rates of 8.5 percent or higher. Eligibility will be lengthened by up to 14 weeks in all other states.

The Senate bill is more generous than the legislation passed last month by the House, which would extend unemployment benefits by up to 13 weeks in states with jobless rates of 8.5 percent or higher. The unemployment rate in Rhode Island stood at 12.8 percent in August.

Senators have been arguing about who should be eligible for the extension, with lawmakers from states with lower unemployment rates arguing their states should not be excluded from the extension.

Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the bill Thursday, saying they had not been given enough time to study the compromise measure. Reid said he wants the Senate to vote next week.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., has been among those pushing for quick action on the unemployment extension, and he is a co-sponsor of the compromise measure.

More than 5.4 million Americans had been unemployed for at least 27 weeks as of last month, according to the Labor Department. An estimated 4,500 Rhode Islanders will run out of benefits by the end of the year, in addition to the thousands who already have, Reed said Monday in a speech on the Senate floor.

“This is an extraordinary number of people who are out of work, and they are finding incredible difficulty in securing jobs,” he said. “I ask that my colleagues come together in support of an extension of the unemployment-insurance benefits.”

Reed’s office said the extension will be paid for by extending the federal unemployment tax through June 30, 2011. The legislation also includes a provision that would allow families to remain eligible for food stamps while receiving the additional $25 in unemployment benefits included in the economic stimulus law passed in February.

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