Congressional Democrats and Republicans are fighting over whether to extend unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the month -- a top priority for President Obama -- and appear at odds over how exactly to pay for the approximately $26 billion that a one-year extension would cost.
A top Democrat said Sunday that extending the long-term benefits for those out of work for more than six months doesn't necessarily have to be tied to a budget agreement that is under negotiation by the two parties.
"I don't think we've reached that point where we've said, 'This is it; take it or leave it,'" Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said on ABC's "This Week." "There are unemployed families who need a helping hand. We've got to protect and preserve the safety net in America and give these working families a fighting chance."
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, suggested an extension could be possible if it's funded.
"It's an additional cost within this budget agreement," he said on the program. "I think the thought always was that would be handled separately. So I'm glad to hear my colleague Dick Durbin say that that's not necessarily a sticking point in this because I think there are different ways to look at it."
In his weekly address, President Obama said extending unemployment insurance shouldn't be a partisan issue and blamed congressional Republicans for refusing to extend it. If Congress doesn't act before its holiday recess, benefits will expire for about 1.3 million unemployed Americans.
Economists generally say unemployment benefits help the economy because they allow recipients to spend money quickly on household needs.
"If Congress refuses to act, it won't just hurt families already struggling -- it will actually harm our economy," the president said. "Unemployment insurance is one of the most effective ways there is to boost our economy."
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said last week before the November jobs report was released that he would look at any plan Mr. Obama has for extending unemployment benefits but that the president should focus more on creating a better environment for the economy and jobs, not more government programs.
A report released Friday showed that the economy created more than 200,000 jobs in November and that the unemployment rate ticked down from 7.3 percent to 7.0 percent -- the lowest it has been since 2008.
While economists welcomed the news, even the most bullish among them acknowledge that part of the reason the rate is declining is that many people simply have given up looking for work and dropped out of the labor force.
The Federal Reserve also has been buying government bonds through a program known as "quantitative easing" to help prime the pump of the stagnant economy.
Mr. Boehner said the report included positive signs "that should discourage calls for more emergency government 'stimulus.'"
Multiple outlets are reporting that at least one member of Mr. Boehner's conference Rep. Christopher P. Gibson, New York Republican, is circulating a letter lobbying for an extension of the benefits.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, also has said she would like the benefits extended for one year but that the measure could be separate from a budget deal.
Treading down that path could provide more flexibility to negotiators on both sides, but it also would leave Congress without a clear vehicle with which to move the extension. Budget negotiators have created a few self-imposed deadlines, but benefits for the 1.3 million people will end Dec. 28 absent action from Congress.
In December 2010, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats traded a two-year extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for a $57 billion, one-year extension of emergency unemployment benefits.
But with Democrats and Republicans seemingly unwilling to budge on major entitlement reforms and tax increases, respectively, it's unclear what Republicans could receive in a possible deal for an extension.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the program could be funded by squeezing additional revenue out of "deadbeat" taxpayers and Americans trying to hide money overseas.
"We do pay for it," he said. "We pay for it by making sure that people who are deadbeats and trying to hide their money pay their fair share of taxes so that other people don't have to pay more."
But a philosophical divide on the issue between the two parties was also evident Sunday. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said he supports unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that are paid for but extending them beyond that would be a disservice to workers.
"When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy, and while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you're trying to help," he said.
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Original headline: As the unemployed wait, lawmakers debate about extended benefits
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