Obama Calls on Congress to Restore Unemployment Benefits

A day after a report was released claiming that $400 million has already been taken out of the economy thanks to the expiration of unemployment benefits, President Barack Obama called on the GOP to restore what he called the "vital economic lifeline" for the 1.3 million long-term unemployed. In his weekly address, the President urged Congress to make extending unemployment insurance their "first order of business" — but the fight is an old one, and likely to be tough.

According to the report released by House Democrats Friday, the effects of cutting emergency unemployment benefits have already been huge — in the first week since the program was cut, state economies and jobless Americans have already lost $400 million. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, not renewing the program will also have major long-term effects, with the economy likely to lose 200,000 jobs this year alone.

"Just a few days after Christmas, more than 1 million of our fellow Americans lost a vital economic lifeline — the temporary insurance that helps folks make ends meet while they look for a job," Obama said Saturday. "Republicans in Congress went home for the holidays and let that lifeline expire. And for many of their constituents who are unemployed through no fault of their own, that decision will leave them with no income at all."

The emergency federal unemployment insurance program expired on Dec. 28, after Congress failed to include legislation that would have extended the insurance in last month's budget deal. Opposition to the program comes from a range of Republican angles: some say that extending benefits just encourages laziness (in spite of the fact that the average American takes roughly 35 weeks to find a new employment ); others argue that they're unwilling to extend the program without offsetting spending cuts — an option which, they claim, was not offered by Democrats last month.

"Right now, a bipartisan group in Congress is working on a three-month extension of unemployment insurance — and if they pass it, I will sign it. For decades, Republicans and Democrats put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers, even when the unemployment rate was lower than it is today," Obama said. "Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year's resolution to do the right thing, and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now."

Some Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, have indicated that they still might be willing to restore the aid, which costs about $26 billion, as long as the cost can be offset somewhere else. But the bill that the Senate will be considering next week, sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I. and Dean Heller R-Nev., doesn't include cost offsets, and so is likely to be the start of a long partisan battle — one that will cause difficulties not only for the struggling unemployed, but for America's economy as well.

"If folks can't pay their bills or buy the basics, like food and clothes, local businesses take a hit and hire fewer workers ... Unless Congress restores this insurance, we'll feel a drag on our economic growth this year. And after our businesses created more than 2 million new jobs last year, that's a self-inflicted wound we don't need," said Obama.