Obama to ratchet up pressure on jobless aid

President Obama will ratchet up pressure on Congress to renew federal unemployment benefits on Tuesday by holding a meeting with people who have lost the aid.

The presidential push comes as Senate Democrats hopes to move next week on a bipartisan bill offered by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) that would extend the benefits for three months.

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“We talk about numbers; this [event] is about people,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said on a conference call Friday with reporters. “There have been so many people who, through no fault of their own, are quite literally destitute.

“These programs don’t get in the way of people looking for work — they assist people looking for work,” he added.

Benefits expired at the end of December for more than 1 million people, after Congress decided against including an extension in a budget bill.

Democrats argue that failure to renew the program would cause a drag on the economy.

Betsey Stevenson, a member of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said if benefits aren't extended, the U.S. gross domestic product could be reduced by 0.2 percent.

“Failure to extend the benefits we estimate would cost 240,000 jobs,” Stevenson said.

Republicans have argued that an improving economy means the nation can cut the benefits, which were first started by President George W. Bush as part of a stimulus bill launched as the economy veered into recession.

They have also said the $6 billion cost of the Reed-Heller bill should be offset with other spending cuts. Extending the benefits for the year could cost roughly $25 billion.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he would only entertain extending the benefits “as long as it’s paid for, and as long as there are other efforts to help get our economy moving once again.”

A memo from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent to fellow House Republicans Friday outlining the GOP's January legislative agenda did not mention extending the unemployment benefits. 

The White House has telegraphed that an extension will be a top priority upon the president's return from Hawaii next week, dispatching top economic adviser Gene Sperling to argue for an extension in a spate of television appearances this week.

Perez argued that Congress should pass the Reed-Heller bill immediately “so you can have a conversation about a longer term measure” that could include ways to offset the spending.

He said the White House would be “more than willing to participate in such a conversation” after a temporary extension was passed.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, Reed said chances for passing his measure in the Senate remained “hanging in the balance.”

“It’s not determined yet, but we’re going to do everything we can,” Reed said, adding that he believed the bill had “momentum.”