Sperling: US economy has 'momentum,' but jobless benefits still needed

A top economic adviser to President Obama said Sunday that the U.S. economy begins 2014 with “significant momentum” even as he pushed for an extension of emergency long-term jobless benefits.

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“It is true the economy is improving and showing more momentum. The unemployment rate in general is falling,” Gene Sperling, chairman of the National Economic Council, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But what we’re finding is that the worst legacy of the Great Recession is that there is a crisis of long-term unemployment — people who have been unemployed for six months or longer are finding it most difficult.”

Democrats from the president on down have made an extension of long-term unemployment insurance – for people out of work for 26 weeks or longer – the top priority at the start of the new year. Benefits lapsed in December when Congress took no action before the holidays.

The unemployment rate has fallen to 7 percent nationally, and other economic indicators in recent weeks point to a continued drop in the coming months.

Sperling said that while the economy is improving, emergency benefits for the long-term unemployed would be needed until the overall jobless rate approached 6 percent.

“We have to be a country committed to leaving nobody behind in this recovery, and so that requires a full-court press,” he said. “We as a country have never, never over the last half century have we cut off emergency unemployment benefits when long-term unemployment has been this high. Never before.”

Republicans have questioned the need for an another extension, which would allow some people to collect benefits for up to 99 weeks. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he would be open to an extension, but only if it is paid for and coupled with other job creation measures.

The Senate plans to hold a key test vote on Monday on a proposal to extend emergency long-term unemployment insurance.

“Tomorrow is the day that 1.3 million Americans go to their mailbox and find that the check … will not be there,” Sperling said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Tomorrow is also the day the Senate will have a chance to vote on the first bipartisan solution.”

“Let’s pass the Heller-Reed proposal tomorrow,” he added.

--This report was updated at 10:47 a.m.