Obama presses for jobless benefits; fate in Congress uncertain

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about unemployment insurance benefits at the White House in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about unemployment insurance benefits at the White House in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery / MCT

McClatchy Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama pressed Congress on Tuesday to extend jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans, dismissing the suggestion that the checks lead people to shun work and insisting there’s no need for budget offsets to pay the price.

The Senate did take an important step toward restoring the benefits, which ended Dec. 28. Senators voted 60-27 to remove a big procedural roadblock to any legislation, with six Republicans joining 52 Democrats and two independents.

Yet even if the Senate approves the benefits, advocates still face big hurdles in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

President Barack Obama put his political weight squarely behind the effort Tuesday, hosting an event in the White House East Room that had the feel of both a pep rally and a somber testimonial to the dangers of not extending the benefits.

“These aren’t folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen,” Obama said. “They’re out there actively looking for work. They desperately want work.”

The partisan divide is both philosophical and fiscal. Republicans insist the $6.5 billion price be paid for with cuts in spending elsewhere.

“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “To date, the president has offered no such plan.”

Congressional Democrats said they’d be willing to consider offsets, though many suggested Republicans were using offsets as an excuse not to act.

“The fundamental question is, are they going through a charade to show they really, really want a bill, but they just can’t come to an agreement, and there are two different versions that fail?” asked Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Many Republicans believe that the longer people can get unemployment checks, the less inclined they’ll be to seek work. And, they added, the administration should have done more to help create jobs.

“Here we go again to treat a symptom of a disease,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “But the tragedy is that the policies of this administration are driving this poor growth record.”

Obama disputed those notions.

“Although the economy’s been growing and we’ve been adding new jobs, the truth of the matter is that the financial crisis was so devastating that there’s still a lot of people who are struggling,” the president said. “And in fact, if we don’t provide unemployment insurance, it makes it harder for them to find a job.”

Katherine Hackett, an unemployed Connecticut woman who introduced Obama, called the benefits “absolutely essential” to covering her necessities, such as her mortgage and health care, as she looked for work.

She said she’s cut expenses and “is not just sitting at home enjoying the good life.” The temperature in her home is set at 58 degrees, she said, and she wears a hat and a coat indoors to stay warm.

The White House said there’s no need to pay for the extension with spending cuts or tax increases. Absent any offsets, the cost is added to the deficit and the debt.

“In the past, both parties have repeatedly put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers with no strings attached,” Obama said.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama saw an “emergency” – given that some benefits have already expired – and that once it’s addressed, lawmakers could come back after three months to find a longer-term fix.

He offered no details about what the White House might consider if a short-term deal were reached.

Carney said he believes the White House has the “momentum” to get the extension passed without corresponding cuts, noting that an increasing number of Republicans have agreed to extend the benefits.

“We are absolutely unwilling to concede that there is not support for doing what Congress has done in the past,” he said.

Political pressure is growing. Republicans are being prodded by influential conservative interest groups.

Heritage Action and the Club for Growth warned lawmakers that their vote could be used against them in mid-term elections by conservative voters.

“After six years, an extension can no longer be called an ‘emergency’ with any credibility,” a Club for Growth statement said. “There is plenty of waste in the federal budget from which to find an offset.”

The emergency program began in 2008, as the nation was mired in a deep recession. Unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009. Today, the maximum an unemployed worker can received in benefits is 73 weeks in certain states. The Democrats’ hope is that Republicans from the hardest-hit states will join the effort. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., a conservative who usually votes solidly Republican, proved to be a key advocate for the extension.

“Congress simply must provide some temporary relief for those who are unemployed,” he told colleagues Monday.

Skeptics, though, point out that 45 states’ rates were lower in November than in October – including the four states with the highest rates – while five were unchanged. The national rate was 7 percent, its lowest level in five years.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid; @lesleyclark

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