Obama hammers GOP on stalling unemployment benefits for jobless

President Obama told Republicans on Monday morning that they should “do the right thing” and extend unemployment insurance regardless of election-year politics.

Republicans quickly cried foul and accused the president of playing politics and grandstanding.

They pointed out that a vote has already been scheduled for Tuesday and that with a new senator from West Virginia sworn in, Obama appears to have the votes for passage.

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GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine both voted for the extension the week before the Senate’s July 4 recess. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) opposes the extension, however, which left Democrats one vote shy of the 60 they need to overcome procedural objections.

With Carte Goodwin set to be sworn in as West Virginia’s new senator on Tuesday, Democrats appear to have the 60 votes.

Obama on Monday blasted Senate Republicans for “holding workers laid off in this recession hostage.”

Obama and his Democratic allies are working to portray the GOP as beholden to the wealthy and indifferent to working-class families hurt by the global financial collapse and high national unemployment rate.

“I know it’s getting close to an election, but there are times when you put an election aside,” Obama said. “This is one of those times.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs disputed assertions that the White House knows it will win the next vote on extending unemployment benefits, saying “if there’s anything that’s truly knowable in this town, it is that nothing is truly knowable.”

“We certainly don’t take anything for granted, given the fact that this will be the fourth vote on extending unemployment benefits, when if you look, I think, at the past, this has tended not to be a confrontational or controversial thing to do,” Gibbs said.

The president said Republicans who are “advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job” should talk to unemployed people who are looking for jobs on a daily basis.

“That attitude, I think, reflects a lack of faith in the American people,” Obama said. “They’re not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work. They just can’t find a job.”

The unemployment extension is one of three bills dealing with the economy that the White House wants to move before the August recess.

Financial reform, the second bill, was approved last week and will be signed into law on Wednesday. That will leave a small-business tax cut package, which Obama hopes to see completed this week.

Senate Republicans, who have blocked the unemployment extension three times, say Democrats should be honest about the cost of extending benefits and offset the expense in the budget.

 Republicans have noted that Obama has signed a pay-as-you-go measure that would require the federal government to pay for new spending with either offsetting tax increases or spending cuts.

Gibbs said that Obama’s push for extending the benefits as an emergency expense is not hypocritical.

“I think this president has backed up that rhetoric by introducing a three-year ban or a three-year freeze on non-security spending,” Gibbs said. “But there are certain things that are and always have been considered emergency spending, and extending unemployment benefits to those who have lost their jobs in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression certainly qualifies for that.”

With the midterm campaign season well under way, Obama and his Democratic allies are trying to portray themselves as heroes of the working class, working hard to help Americans in a sluggish economy.

The White House is hopeful that Democrats will be able to return to their districts in August touting success on these economic agenda items.

But Republicans and analysts say little will assuage the uncertainty gripping the American people as long as unemployment hovers near 10 percent nationally and at much higher rates in some states.

“They’re in a bind, considering the three planks in their platform: stimulus, healthcare, Wall Street,” said one GOP Senate aide in an e-mail. “The first one is widely regarded as ineffectual or harmful (and a debt bomb); the second is hated by half the country while the rest are mainly lukewarm; the third people don’t understand and don’t think it will help (particularly the Democratic base).

“Meanwhile, the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters is described by a 9.5 percent unemployment rate. Good luck with that.”