Obama presses for renewal of federal jobless benefits

President Obama said the first order of business for Congress next year should be renewing a federal jobless benefits program.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put consideration of a bill at the top of his list for January. Senate Democrats filed cloture Friday on Democratic legislation that would reauthorize the program for three months. The bill has one Republican supporter, so far. 

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"So when Congress comes back to work their first order of business should be making this right," Obama said. 

"I know a bipartisan group is working on a three-month extension of this insurance," he said.

"They should pass it. I'll sign it right away." 

Obama chided congressional Republicans for failing to push through the legislation that will leave 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed without their weekly checks on Dec. 28.

"Republicans in Congress should've done it before leaving town this week," Obama said during his final press conference of the year on Friday.

He said a lack of action by Congress means the unemployed "will lose a vital economic lifeline at Christmastime, leaving a lot of job seekers without any source of income at all."

The program is available for those who have exhausted their state-level benefits, usually meaning they have been out of work for at least six months. Every state except North Carolina participates in the federal program. 

The program started in 2008 when the unemployment rate was on the rise and has continued for the past five years. 

It has lapsed five times in that span, but the benefits have never been halted for all participants. 

"I think we're a better country than that," the president said about Congress being unable to pass a bill before the holidays and the expiration of the program.

"We don't abandon each other when times are tough," he said. 

House Democrats pressed unsuccessfully to include the reauthorization in the two-year budget deal cleared by the Senate this week. 

The push became more intense after House Republicans added a Medicare "doc fix" amendment to the budget bill before it hit the floor last week. 

Two top Democrats — House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) — were incensed at the move and urged Republicans to let the House vote on a short-term bill.

But that didn't happen, and Democrats ran out of options to pass the bill before the holidays. 

The White House, congressional Democrats and other advocates of the program ultimately would like a yearlong renewal of the program as jobless rates remain high around the country. 

The unemployment rate was 7 percent in November.

The long-term jobless have struggled more than in any other recovery to find work even as the labor market has shown signs of kicking into a higher gear during the past several months.