US President Barack Obama urged the US Congress to make the restoration of unemployment benefits a priority as both he and lawmakers return to work after a holiday break.
The renewal of the “vital economic lifeline” provided by the aid should be US lawmakers’ “first order of business” this week, Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday.
“Republicans in Congress went home for the holidays and let that lifeline expire,” the president said, referring to the program that provided supplemental payments to long-term unemployed workers. “And for many of their constituents who are unemployed through no fault of their own, that decision will leave them with no income at all.”
US Senate Democrats are searching for a compromise with Republicans to extend the program for another three months to about 1.3 million people. The plan would cost about US$6.5 billion, according to the US Congressional Budget Office.
Republican congressional leaders say the spending should be offset with cuts elsewhere.
The jobless benefits expired on Dec. 28 after the program was left out of a deal to fund the government for two years, which Democrats and Republicans hammered out before leaving Washington for their break.
Obama said continuing the benefits will help mothers afford to feed their children while looking for work, and fathers trying to learn a new skill to get a job.
“And denying families that security is just plain cruel,” the president said. “We’re a better country than that. We don’t abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough — we keep the faith with them until they start that new job.”
Obama also pressed an economic argument for the aid.
“If folks can’t pay their bills or buy the basics, like food and clothes, local businesses take a hit and hire fewer workers,” he said. “And after our businesses created more than 2 million new jobs last year, that’s a self-inflicted wound we don’t need.”
The extended unemployment program began in 2008 and at one point provided as much as 99 weeks of aid — 26 weeks in state benefits and up to 73 weeks in federal benefits. It has been renewed 11 times since it was put in place by then-president George W. Bush amid the financial crisis.
The length of the assistance has been reduced through the extension renewals and now has a maximum total of 73 weeks, though most states average fewer.