Reporting from Washington — Many people want Congress to approve a deal to extend tax cuts by Dec. 31 to avoid a financial hit next year. But for 185,000 jobless Californians, the crucial deadline for passing the agreement is Saturday.
That's when their special extended unemployment benefits will run out.
They are among 410,695 Californians and about 2 million people nationwide whose benefits will expire throughout this month without the reauthorization of federal money for emergency unemployment aid, which is included in the deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts.
President Obama and congressional Republican leaders have agreed to provide $56 billion for those programs to continue through 2011. But many Democrats in Congress are upset that the pact includes extending the top-level rate for wealthy Americans, and odds are slim that lawmakers will act before Sunday.
The agreement is expected to be enacted before year's end, and as in the past, those whose benefits expire before then probably would receive payments retroactively.
But that still would be a problem for people such as Marie Roth, 40, of Hemet.
The single mother of a 2-year-old girl, Roth lost her job as a property manager in June 2009 and has been unable to find work. When her unemployment benefits lapsed for several weeks this summer as lawmakers sparred over an earlier extension, Roth said, she fell behind on her mortgage and car payments and has been unable to catch up.
"I honestly don't know what I'll do," she said. "I'll probably have to let them foreclose on my house and rent a room somewhere with my daughter."
After being without a job for months, most of the long-term unemployed can't afford to go even a week without a benefit check, said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.
"They're pretty stretched financially, so that check needs to come on time," he said.
Since 2008, Congress has enacted several extensions to the regular 26 weeks of unemployment, allowing people months more of benefits. Californians and residents of 23 other states with high unemployment now are eligible for 99 weeks in separate tiers of benefits.
But as those tiers expire, payments would cut off much earlier than 99 weeks.
The deal between Obama and Republicans doesn't extend that upper limit but adds funding to allow 7 million people who haven't used up their 99 weeks to continue receiving checks.
People started losing benefits this month after Republicans blocked attempts to pass additional funding. In California, 410,695 people will stop receiving checks at some point during December when they exhaust the benefits in their tier.
But people in the final tier of benefits — 20 weeks as part of the so-called FED-ED extension — will be cut off Saturday regardless of whether they have reached the limit. The National Employment Law Project said 810,527 nationwide face that deadline.
"There are people right now who, when their unemployment insurance runs out, will not be able to pay the bills," Obama said this week in urging fellow Democrats to support the tax-cut extension package. The White House made additional funding for unemployment benefits a centerpiece of the deal.
But action might not come soon enough for Roth and Karen Flynn, 62, an unemployed teacher from Lincoln, near Sacramento. Worried that funding for her benefits would not be extended, Flynn stopped renting a house last month and moved in with friends.
"I look at the news on my computer each day," Flynn said of the developments in Washington. "It's very frustrating to find that our unemployment [assistance] is tied to rich people getting tax breaks."