White House: Obama won't insist on jobless aid in budget deal

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The White House will not insist that an emerging budget deal include an extension of the unemployment benefits program set to expire at the end of the year, press secretary Jay Carney said on Friday.

Carney said that it would be “terrible to tell more than a million families across the country just a few days after Christmas that they're out of benefits,” but that the White House was agnostic on how the extension happened.

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“The vehicle that they use to do that is less important than the fact that they do it,” Carney said.

The statement from Carney echoed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who said Thursday that an extension of the jobless benefits did not have to be included in a budget deal to win Democratic support.

“Hopefully, it could be part of the budget, but it doesn't have to be part of the budget,” Pelosi said. “It could be on its own vehicle, as it goes forward, but it's something we must consider.”

That softened remarks Pelosi made during a Democratic panel on unemployment insurance, during which she said her party couldn't support a budget deal that didn't include the extension in the budget, or at least in a “side bar in order to move it along.”

Federal jobless benefits are available after state benefits are exhausted, usually after around half a year. Democrats say 1.3 million workers would lose their benefits if the program was not extended before Dec. 28.

Republicans on Friday suggested the benefits aren’t needed after a November jobs report showed the economy added 204,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent, the lowest rate since November 2008.

The White House noted, however, that the report didn’t suggest a drop in the number of people who have been unemployed for more than six months. That group would be helped by the federal jobless benefits.  

It has also repeatedly argued that unemployment remains higher than when the benefits were first started by the Bush administration.

"I noted the 7 percent unemployment rate, which has ticked down from 7.3 percent, which is good news, but it is still far too high and it is still significantly higher than the 5.6 percent unemployment rate which compelled President George W. Bush to sign an extension of unemployment benefits when he was in office," Carney said.

Separately, Carney would say only that “we hope and expect” that congressional negotiators could strike a budget deal.

“I don't want to characterize the progress in any way, except to say that any sense that there is a return to an ability for each side to come together and to reach a compromise on budget matters would be welcome, and that is certainly what we've talked a lot about, and we talked a lot about this over the course of the year, a return to regular order,” Carney said.

— Mike Lillis contributed.