WAIMANALO, Hawaii -- With unemployment benefits set to expire Saturday for about 1.3 million Americans, President Obama on Friday pressed for Congress to act, calling two senators who have offered legislation that would extend them for three months.
The president made the calls from his vacation home on Oahu to Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest, offering support for their proposal and praising them for “working in a bipartisan fashion” on a problem that he said would adversely affect the nation’s economic growth and job creation.
One week ago, during his final news conference of the year at the White House, Obama applauded the rebounding economy but faulted Congress for inaction on unemployment insurance, charging that by not extending jobless benefits it was leaving a million constituents without “a vital economic lifeline at Christmastime.”
“We’re a better country than that. We don’t abandon each other when times are tough,” Obama told reporters. He said the benefits go only to Americans “who are actively looking for work -- a mom who needs help feeding her kids when she sends out her resumes, or a dad who needs help paying the rent while working part-time and still learning the skills he needs for that new job.”
He called on members of Congress to make the temporary extension of benefits “their first order of business” when they come back into session next year, saying that if lawmakers approve it, he would sign the Reed-Heller proposal “right away.”
On Saturday, Americans who have been out of work and collecting unemployment benefits for more than 26 weeks will stop receiving the federal-state assistance. The length of time that Americans can receive the aid varies from state to state — at the peak of the recession some Californians were eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits — but bipartisan support for the extensions has diminished as the economy has improved. (Congress has approved extensions of unemployment benefits 11 times since the summer of 2008).
Many Republicans have balked at the $25-billion cost of extending unemployment benefits for the next year at a time when many of their constituents remain concerned about the federal deficit.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is considering a run for president in 2016, has argued that extending unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks does “a disservice to these workers.”
"There was a study that came out a few months ago, and it said, if you have a worker that's been unemployed for four weeks and on unemployment insurance and one that's on 99 weeks, which would you hire?" Paul said on “Fox News Sunday” in early December. "Every employer said they will always hire the person who's been out of work four weeks."
Expanding his remarks during an interview with NBC News, Paul argued that the longer workers are unemployed, "the less likely they are to ever get a job again.”
Democrats are eager to debate that view. California Gov. Jerry Brown has said that the Saturday cutoff would hamper the state's improving economy. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a statement Friday accusing Republicans who oppose the extension of being heartless.
“Neglecting to extend this vital lifeline to millions of workers is simply immoral -- an abdication of our obligation to do what we can to support those who worked hard, played by the rules, and lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” Pelosi said. “For the Americans affected by this Republican inaction, there’s no time to waste. The first item on Congress’ agenda in the New Year must be an extension of unemployment insurance.”
Despite improving economic news, 70% of Americans in a CNN/ORC poll released this week said the economy was in “poor shape” and half expected it to remain that way well into next year.