Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, the chief sponsor of the package, urged legislators not to upset the bill's balance and said an oversight committee would examine whether keeping out those exceptions was a significant enough problem that could be restored later.

"We need to keep this bill intact and let it go into effect, and then we can surely go back and look at the consequences," Howard said. "The focus of this bill, remember, is to try to retire this debt, become solvent and put people back to work."

Bill supporters said the benefit reductions will bring them more in line with other Southeast states and will apply to workers who lose their jobs starting July 1. But the enactment date also means federal emergency extended job benefits approved last month by Congress will end six months early, cutting off those benefits to 80,000 workers receiving a total of $25 million a week, bill opponents say.

During the two-hour debate, House members on both sides of the issue sought to persuade colleagues that they empathize with the jobless and understand what it's like to be unemployed.

First-term Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, said she's a registered nurse who's been unemployed three times in recent years. And Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, said her husband has been long-term unemployed twice in the past 12 years.

Worker advocates have tried â¿¿ unsuccessfully to date â¿¿ to slow down the pace of the bill at the Legislative Building and get legislators to place more of the burden of repaying the debt upon businesses and less on the jobless that will receive less.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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