Advocates see hope for renewal of unemployment benefits extension

Advocates are hopeful that Congress will approve another renewal of federal unemployment benefits despite a strong jobs report and some opposition from Republicans. 

While Democrats aren't insisting that the reauthorization be included in a budget agreement, which could leave the measure without an obvious legislative vehicle, supporters of the extension, including congressional aides, point to a couple factors in their favor. 

The issue isn’t partisan, they say.

While some Republicans oppose the extension, GOP Rep. Chris Gibson (N.Y.) was circulating a letter rallying Republican support.

“As budget negotiations continue between the House and Senate, we respectfully request that the House consider a temporary extension of emergency unemployment insurance to protect an essential safeguard that has aided Americans who have endured through a weak economy,” the letter says. 

Supporters also think Washington won't want to end support for a program that started under President George W. Bush, when the jobless rate was 5.6 percent. 

While Friday’s jobs report was strong, long-term unemployment remains a serious problem, and the $25.7 billion program is targeted to those people. The federal benefits kick in after state benefits expire.

“Even in spite of an improving economy, there is a dual unemployment dynamic," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project (NELP).  

As a result, Conti and others argue Friday’s numbers, which found unemployment fell to 7 percent last month, wouldn’t hurt their case.

Republicans hinted Friday that the good jobs report could be a reason to end the program.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the positive report “should discourage calls for more emergency government ‘stimulus.’ ” 

But Boehner also said he would be willing to look at any plan produced by the White House to renew the federal program. 

A House Democratic aide suggested that Boehner’s comments might actually point to a solution: The program could be extended, they say, if it is paid for.

Democrats in the past have argued there is no reason to offset the cost of the benefits because it stimulates spending in the economy.

The White House has offered to work with congressional leaders on finding the needed offsets.

House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) offered a proposal this week that he said would raise $39 billion, which would more than offset the cost of the benefits. His proposal would spend $14 billion to ramp up staff levels at the Internal Revenue Service, which he says would then take in $39 billion in unpaid taxes.

Republicans immediately poured cold water on that idea.

“It is tough to imagine there is any significant support for making it easier to go after and audit job-creating small businesses, which exactly what this proposal does,” said Michelle Dimarob, a spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

Without an extension, about 1.3 million people who have been out of work for at least six months would see their benefits evaporate on Dec. 28.

The White House also said Friday’s jobs report provided no reason to end the five-year program, despite notable progress in the labor market. 

Although layoffs are decreasing and those out of work in the short-term are finding new jobs faster, the number of long-term unemployed as a percentage of those out of work rose to 37.3 percent up from 36.1 in October, the White House said.  

All states except North Carolina are using the federal benefits program that provides help for those who have exhausted their state benefits, which typically last 26 weeks. 

Benefits are curtailed as jobless rates drop in states. There are still 23 states that have an unemployment rate of 7 percent or higher. 

The federal program was first authorized in June 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 as part of the “fiscal-cliff” deal.