President Barack Obama made an emotional, moral and economic case for extending long-term unemployment benefits on Tuesday, kicking off his first skirmish of the year with Republicans.
The spat over prolonging the lifeline to 1.3 million Americans, among millions looking for work, represents the first political test of wills in Washington at the start of a mid-term election year.
“I can’t name a time when I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job,” Obama said, surrounded by people who lost their benefits when Congress failed to act last year.
“The unemployed are not lazy, they are not lacking in motivation, they are coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations,” Obama said at the White House.
Moments before the president spoke, in an early sign of the rising political pressure on the issue, the Senate narrowly advanced a bill to extend jobless benefits.
The federal government’s emergency unemployment compensation program, which extends the aid beyond the 26 weeks provided by most states, expired on December 28, leaving hundreds of thousands of families in the lurch just three days after Christmas.
Most Republicans objected to the $6.5-billion price tag for the proposed three-month extension, and the lack of a plan to pay for the cost without expanding the national debt.
Six Republicans joined majority Democrats in the 60-37 roll call to move toward a final vote on the measure, which could come later this week.
But the bill faces a tough battle in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Obama argued that there was a strong moral case to extending the benefits, saying that anyone could find themselves out of work and out of luck, and requiring government help to get back on their feet.
But he also said that the money for jobless benefits would be directly injected back into the economy and would help spur growth.
“Letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong. Congress should make things right,” Obama said.
Senator Dean Heller, from the state of Nevada, which leads the nation in unemployment rates and who is the lone Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said it was “just not right” to have the benefits expire.
“I understand my colleagues’ concerns about the cost and their desires to pay for this extension. I too want to see our federal debt brought under control,” Heller said late Monday.
But “helping those in need should not be a partisan issue,” he added. “Providing a limited social safety net is one of the responsibilities of the federal government.”
House conservatives will likely block the measure unless there is a deal to pay for the benefits.
“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,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
“To date, the president has offered no such plan.”
But Senate Democrat Jack Reed, who co-sponsored the bill with Heller, said it was more important to immediately “help these families” who were “pushed off an economic cliff on December 28.”
Reed also noted that the program, begun under Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, had routinely been extended without offset payments because it was deemed an emergency measure.
White House officials say they are prepared to talk to Republicans on paying for the benefits in the long term, but only once a three-month extension is agreed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested a deal on how to pay for the aid would open a window of opportunity.
“I understand the majority leader (Senator Harry Reid) didn’t rule that out, and the administration hasn’t either. So I think it’s worth talking about,” McConnell said.
Reid said he was open to discussing any “reasonable” offset offer by Republicans.
While the economy has improved slightly, with the jobless rate now at a five-year low of 7.0 percent, Americans are taking longer to find work.
The Congressional Budget Office says inaction could shave 0.2 percentage points or more off US gross domestic product, which experts say could cost 240,000 jobs.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]