House Democrats make renewal of jobless benefits a top priority

House Democrats vowed on Friday to make the reauthorization of a federal jobless benefits program a top priority in the new year even as Republican support remains sparse. 

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said they would push the issue until, at least, a short-term measure is passed to renew the program that expired for 1.3 million people on Dec. 28.

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Hoyer called the long-term unemployment situation — about 37 percent of all those out of work have been jobless for at least six months — "a crisis that needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed immediately."

He called the failure of Congress to continue the program into this year "reckless and irresponsible."

Hoyer said that Republicans should expect his party to continue highlighting the plight of those who have struggled to find work and need the benefits to continue their job search.

He said they would push the Republican leadership to "bring it up immediately upon return" next week from the holiday recess and "stay on it until such time we're able to deal with this."

"It has a damaging impact to the economy. It's not just about the economy, it's more than that. It's real people with families struggling to put food on the table," Hoyer told reporters in a Friday conference call. 

But Republicans have been resistant to another reauthorization of the program, which kicked in during the summer of 2008 as the unemployment rate started to tick up. 

"Despite a dozen extensions, academic research suggests the program has actually hurt, rather than helped, the job creation that the unemployed need most," said an official for Ways and Means Committee Republicans. 

"It is time to focus on policies that will actually lead to real economic opportunities for families who are trying to get back on their feet and back into the workplace."

But two prominent economists pushed back on that conclusion, arguing that the program is vital to the recovering economy and is needed by the long-term unemployed to keep them looking for work and in the labor force, especially while unemployment rates remain persistently high across most of the country. 

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said that all economic evidence of extending the benefits points to them propping up the broader economy instead of being a disincentive to find work.

"The lack of benefits is making things worse," he said. 

Reich argued that passing a bill should be considered an urgent matter because the job hunt is being made more difficult because the economy is still a million jobs short of pre-recessionary levels and that there is only one job for every three people looking. 

"The economy is still struggling to get out of gravitational pull of the Great Recession," he said.

The failure to extend the benefits "radiates out to the rest of the economy."

Ways and Means Committee Democrats said earlier on Friday that the estimated cost to the economy in the first week since the expiration of benefits is $400 million, although economists argue it could be as large as a billion dollars per week. 

The Congressional Budget Office has said it could cost the economy 200,000 jobs this year and hurt economic growth. 

Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University, said failure to continue the program under these economic conditions is  fiscally irresponsible because it will cost taxpayers more down the road.

The problem is in disconnecting those from the labor market who have been looking for a job and have been unable to find one, possibly pushing them into more extensive programs such as disability insurance, he said. 

The Senate has a cloture vote planned for 5:30 p.m. Monday on a three-month continuation, which is being led by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and has gained the support of at least one Republican — Nevada Sen. Dean Heller.

"Look, if the Senate can get this passed in the Senate, and Harry Reid has made this priority No. 1, that will create some momentum in the House," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has joined Levin in pushing for a bill.

"And Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio], I think, will be under more pressure to do something."

Levin said he hoped the Senate would pass its bill so it can be brought up in the House and enable lawmakers to "sit down and talk about a longer extension period."

"We have a three-month bill staring us in the face and we need to act on it," he said. 

"I hope Republicans step up to the plate."