What's at stake if Congress fails this time?

Congress is threatening stalemate again, and this time the effect would be felt by millions of average Americans. Here is what's at stake if lawmakers fail to stitch together some deal to keep alive jobless benefits, the payroll tax cut, and the "Doc fix" patch. UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE

Roughly 1.8 million Americans will no longer be eligible for federal unemployment insurance benefits if Congress fails to extend legislation beyond its Dec. 31 expiration date, according to the advocacy group, the National Employment Law Project. Federal unemployment insurance goes to workers who have exhausted state benefits, which typically max out at 26 weeks. This is where the federal unemployment insurance benefits step in to provide anywhere from an additional 34 to 73 weeks of extra checks. It has become an important financial stopgap for the long-term unemployed, or anyone out of work for at least 27 weeks. Macroeconomists also overwhelmingly approve of the benefits because they inject much-needed cash into the fragile economy, and usually, it's money that's quickly spent, boosting consumer demand. PAYROLL TAX CUT

The payroll tax rate will jump from the temporarily reduced 4.2 percent back to 6.2 percent on the first of the year. That means most workers will see the effects of Congress' failure to reach a deal when they receive their first paycheck in 2012. Last year, lawmakers approved a one-year, 2 percent break on payroll taxes to help funnel more cash into the economy. About 160 million workers benefitted from that $110 billion in tax relief, according to the White House. The average worker earning about $50,000 received a $1,000 break this year. Many economists have warned that allowing the benefit to expire could hurt the already struggling economy. DOC FIX

Nearly 50 million Americans on Medicare might face longer wait times to see their physicians. The 27 percent pay cut that the "Doc fix" patch addresses wouldn't happen immediately. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can and has delayed payments to doctors as Congress struggled to pass bills preventing large cuts in Medicare reimbursements. In June 2010, CMS stopped processing Medicare physician claims for nearly three weeks as Congress worked to pass a doc fix bill that prevented a more than 20 percent pay cut. While that means doctors won't see their incomes drop right away, it does mean long delays in getting government reimbursements. That's something that could lead some doctors to slow down their appointment schedule.

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