ST. PAUL -- A Senate committee unanimously passed on voice votes three LTV-related bills Wednesday after lengthy testimony, including a jobless benefits extension that was broadened to include layoffs at all Iron Range mines.

Two of the bills passed without much discussion. One calls for allocating $15 million from the general fund for economic development on the East Range. The other requires a mine and related facilities to remain operable for two years after an announced closure.

Legislators had many questions and some concerns about the third bill that would extend unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 104 weeks for employees of all Iron Range mines who were permanently laid off. It also would extend those benefits to laid off workers of suppliers in counties of the Arrowhead region that do 25 percent of their business with a mining operation.

The bill had initially just targeted workers at the LTV operation that was shut down about two weeks ago. The bill, however, still passed unanimously.

Sen. Doug Johnson led the fight in committee for the legislation. The Tower senator asked his colleagues to imagine their constituents getting up in the morning to go to their job at a manufacturing plant and find 50 percent of the lights are off in the buildings -- their plant is closed, for good.

Johnson depicted a scene similar to what the Hoyt Lakes area is dealing with right now. And he wants legislators to understand why he and other Range legislators are pushing this bill.

"We are trying to preserve a heritage and a way of life," he said.

About 40 former LTV workers, who rode early-morning buses to St. Paul, attended the hearing. They watched stone-faced as the debate carried on.

So far, lawmakers are triumphant, said retired LTV worker Ed Casey. He said the Steelworkers appreciate the support from the Range delegation.

"They've done a really excellent job," Casey said. "They accurately explained the plight in Northern Minnesota."

Casey is optimistic that the legislation will pass and the extended benefits will be available, especially to the young workers recently laid off. He said they need that time to go to school to be competitive in the job market. But, everything isn't set in stone.

"It's a wait and see situation," he said.

None of the former workers testified in the committee meeting Wednesday.

Casey said about 100 workers are expected to come to the Capitol today for the House committee's hearing on the companion bill for extended benefits.

The closed mine and the jobless benefit bills will now move to the Senate floor. The economic development bill will be heard in the Johnson-chaired Senate Finance Committee.

Johnson said he's optimistic the bills will be passed. He also said he hopes the broadened language to include all laid off Steelworkers, not just those at LTV, doesn't cause too many reservations among legislators.

He also said U.S. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who traveled to Duluth and Virginia Wednesday to announce he would seek a third term in the Senate and Steelworkers District 11 Director David Foster who was also on the the Range to announce a union Taconite Recovery Program, should have been at the Capitol instead.

"If David Foster and Paul Wellstone truly cared about the people of the Iron Range, they would have been at the State Capitol today at the legislative hearings working for unemployed Steelworkers rather than playing their normal re-election politics on the Iron Range,'' he said.

The House Commerce, Jobs, & Economic Development Committee will hear a companion bill to Johnson's bill on expanding unemployment benefits today. Rep. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, is the author of that bill.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said things won't be easy in the House, but Range legislators have the support of Republican colleagues from rural Minnesota. And this situation, he said, is like a natural catastrophe, except for one thing.

"You can fix a community devastated by a tornado," he said. "You can't fix a community where there's nothing left. It's dead," Rukavina said.