Senate readies bill to renew federal jobless benefits program

Senate Democrats took the first step on Friday toward considering a renewal of federal unemployment benefits when Congress gets back to work in January. 

Before lawmakers sprinted out of town for the holidays, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) filed cloture on a bill  that would provide three more months of jobless benefits while lawmakers explore ways to continue the program through 2014.

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Congressional Democrats are tying the yearlong reauthorization of the federal program, which provides benefits for those out of work for at least six months, to another extension of the Medicare "doc fix" that will be needed next year.

Lawmakers included a three-month extension of the Medicare sustainable growth rate in the two-year budget deal that cleared Congress this week. 

But the federal unemployment insurance program failed to make the package. A three-month renewal at the start of the year would provide the White House and congressional Democrats the ability to negotiate a continuation through the rest of the year and tie it to another extension of the doc fix.

The White House said Friday that President Obama is firmly behind a yearlong continuation for the benefits, which expire for 1.3 million workers on Dec. 28. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said the benefits would be retroactive but, depending on the appetite of congressional Republicans to agree to a renewal, many would be without the federal aid until an agreement is reached next year.

The plight of the long-term unemployed has been particularly troubling during the economic recovery — about 37 percent of jobless people have been without work for at least six months, and it is taking about 37 weeks for the majority of workers to find new jobs. 

Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said Friday that Obama has made it "very clear" that in addition to passing the budget agreement, it is essential for Congress to extend emergency unemployment insurance.

"No one is pressing harder than the president," Sperling said Friday in a call with reporters. 

"It is a great disappointment to us and this president and the millions of Americans that Congress would leave without passing a bill."

Sperling said the White House also made it clear that it had a plan to continue the program through next year and that "no one should use the excuse that we didn't put one forward."

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did say that the White House made him an offer on a plan but that it didn't meet his conditions.

Sperling reiterated that the White House is willing to work with congressional leaders to find a solution, including offsetting the cost, even if that has rarely happened in the past.

But he also said that there has never been a time when these benefits haven't been extended with the unemployment rate this high.

While the economy is showing signs of improvement — growth for the third quarter was revised up to 4.1 percent and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7 percent — the long-term jobless are still struggling to get back into the workforce, he said. 

A yearlong reauthorization would cost $25.7 billion and could mean the loss of 200,000 jobs next year if they aren't continued, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

He called the number of long-term unemployed "the worst legacy of the Great Recession."

Still, despite the lack off action before the holidays, Sperling said there are several reasons to be hopeful that a bill can move next year.

First is Reid's vow to make the issue a top priority in January and second, is that the Senate bill sponsored by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed has attracted Republican Dean Heller of Nevada. 

Sperling expects lawmakers to return from their break with more insight into who the expiration is hurting, which should spur more support.

Several House Republicans have been gathering signatures to back the extension. 

"This is the wrong time to cut 1.3 million families off from benefits," he said.