House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters, Dec. 5, 2013.
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Democrats: More unemployment benefits or bust

Updated

With less than a month before 1.3 million unemployed Americans lose their federal benefits, Democratic leaders are making a last-ditch push to extend them.

“We cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a Thursday hearing on the issue. “It would undermine who we are as a country.”

Pelosi later walked back here comments and said she would not make a budget deal contingent on an extension of unemployed benefits, saying it could be done in a separate agreement. But the tough talk suggests the issue is a growing priority for the Democratic caucus as the deadline creeps closer.

House Republicans remain firmly opposed to an extension, however, arguing that there’s “no appetite” to continue the benefits and that it’s time for the temporary measure to end. “I don’t think Republicans are inclined for an extension,” Rep Tom Cole told reporters on Tuesday. “Those unemployment extensions were adopted for extraordinary circumstances, those circumstances are slowly disappearing so you would expect to phase out this extension of unemployment as well.”

The emergency benefits first took effect in 2008 and have been repeatedly extended, though they’ve been scaled back over time. Sen. Patty Murray has continued to raise the issue with Rep. Paul Ryan in their budget talks, to little effect so far, according to Democratic aides. Democrats are already facing an uphill battle in their push to reverse sequestration’s automatic cuts. That’s making it even more of a challenge to include the jobless benefits, which were last extended in January’s fiscal cliff deal.

But Speaker John Boehner left the door open at a Thursday press conference. “If the president has a plan for extending unemployment benefits, I’d surely entertain taking a looking at it,” he told reporters. “We haven’t seen a proposal from the Administration or Democrats to reform the program let alone proposals to pay for a 13th extension.  If the Democrats come up with one, we would look at it,” said Michelle Dimarob, a GOP spokesperson for the House Ways and Means Committee.

The White House hasn’t unveiled a specific proposal yet, though it’s continued to make the case for an extension. Allowing the benefits to expire “would be harmful to millions of workers and their families, counterproductive to the economic recovery,” argues a report released Thursday from the administration’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Short- vs. Long-Term Unemployment

Democrats in both chambers have introduced bills that would extend the federal benefits for another year, which would add about $25 billion to the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office. A year-long extension would also add about 200,000 jobs, given the stimulative effect of the money in people’s pockets, and add 0.2 percent to GDP, the CBO says.

Even if the extension made its way into the budget agreement, it’s unlikely that Congress would pass the package before the January 15 deadline, about two weeks after the federal benefits expire. Another vehicle might be the “doc fix” to adjust the payment formula for Medicare, another must-pass item that’s become an annual ritual.

Democrats are also bringing ordinary unemployed Americans to make the case for an extension on Capitol Hill.

At Thursday’s hearing, held by the House Democratic conference, witnesses included Vera Volk, a 20-year veteran of the biotech industry who’s been looking for work since May.

“It is truly creating distress within me. I have very sleepless nights—I wake up with fears and terrors,” said Volk, who’s among the 1.3 million Americans who will lose their federal benefits on December 29.

Despite her work experience and Master’s degree, Volk has only been able to find temp work at UPS and the Postal Service and has considered cleaning houses to make ends meet. “This lack of funding coming up will exasperate my Crohn’s condition—I have to eat less high-quality foods, and I don’t know what ‘s we’re going to do for medication,” said Volk, who was near tears during parts of the hearing. 

“I want to get rid of that wrong impression that people are on unemployment—that they’re coasting along, singing a song, laying in from of the TV watching Jerry Springer and eating junk food,” said Lisa Floyd, a resident of Huntington, West Virginia who secured a job just this week after an eight-month search. “We want to work.”

Democrats: More unemployment benefits or bust

Updated