The White House is calling for Congress to pass a yearlong renewal of a federal unemployment benefits program that would ensure millions of the long-term jobless continue getting weekly checks.
Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said Thursday that program needs a congressional reauthorization because unemployment remains high throughout the country — 7.3 percent nationally and higher in some states.
He said the Obama administration is willing to work with lawmakers toward finding the necessary offsets for the program, which is estimated to cost $24 billion to run through 2014.
"We believe it can be extended under the emergency authority. But we have also made clear that if offsets are desired by Congress, we are willing to work with them to find the offsets that would be able to do that even in a deficit-neutral way for next year," Sperling said at the Washington Ideas Forum.
"We clearly believe that you should extend emergency unemployment into 2014," he said.
If Congress takes no action, and the program expires at the end of the year, 1.3 million people would immediately lose benefits.
"I guess the real question you would say is if we have never as a country not extended when the unemployment rate was this high, why would we not extend now when we are coming back not just from an ordinary recession but the Great Recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression," Sperling said.
Congressional Democrats have already begun the push to continue the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC).
House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) is leading the charge and is urging Congress to reach an agreement by the end of the month to avoid any last-minute deals that could leave people without any cash flow around the holidays.
Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Democrats and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) each released reports about the importance of a reauthorization, saying that upwards of 3 million workers could be affected by June.
Still, the issue is expected to be a hard sell to congressional Republicans, who have highlighted the five-year length and more than $252 billion cost of the program.
"The president has been a staunch supporter of the emergency employment compensation program since he first took office, and this year is no different," Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at NELP, told The Hill on Friday.
"The fact is, the reality facing the long-term unemployed in today’s job market is scary, and we have an obligation to provide them with an adequate safety net while they continue to look for jobs," she said.
"The president realizes that, and truth be told, just about everyone in Congress realizes it as well, even if they won’t admit it publicly."
The emergency benefits kick in after unemployed workers, who have been unable to find a job for at least six months, exhaust their state-level benefits.
The EUC program was first authorized in 2008 when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent and has been reauthorized or expanded 11 times — most recently on Jan. 2 — when it was extended until the end of the year.
But benefits have been gradually curtailed as jobless rates drop in states.
In September, 1.4 million people, or 34 percent of all the long-term unemployed, received federal unemployment benefits, down from about 2.2 people workers a year ago.