Obama Urges Congress to Extend Jobless Aid
President Obama urged lawmakers Tuesday to adopt a three-month extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits that expired last month, saying he is "very appreciative" of Senate efforts that cleared a procedural hurdle shortly before his remarks.
Speaking in the East Room, Obama did not say whether he would eventually agree to offset the estimated $6.5 billion cost of the extension, which is one of the stumbling blocks for many Republican lawmakers opposed to the Senate measure’s deficit spending.
Asked if the president would negotiate with Republicans in order to win votes in Congress, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration believed “emergency” unemployment insurance need not be offset to achieve a temporary extension for millions of Americans who need the help. But his comments left the door open to possible budget concessions.
The Senate surmounted a cloture vote Tuesday morning to open debate on a bipartisan measure that would reinstate benefits for three months, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Dean Heller of Nevada.
“The Senate's a complicated place,” Obama said, surrounded by 20 people who lost their benefits in December or represented advocacy groups supportive of administration policies, such as the National Council of La Raza, Disabled American Veterans, organized labor and civil rights groups. Weather-related travel snags prevented or delayed some attendees from standing with the president in the White House, according to conversations with some of the East Room attendees.
(Spanish-speaking Rafael Perez, 66, of New York, who wore a blue T-shirt from a community organization there, was escorted at the last minute into the back row of 180 chairs in the East Room. He explained to RCP that frigid weather delayed his train trip to Washington; he had expected to stand behind Obama on a platform, but arrived too late.)
“All they've agreed to so far is that we're actually going to be able to have a vote on it,” the president said of the near-term trajectory for congressional action. “[Senators] haven't actually passed it. So we've got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay. And we need the House of Representatives to be able to vote for it as well,” he added.
Among lawmakers seated in the audience were Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, as well as Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan.
Obama kept any partisan rhetoric under wraps, preferring to focus his attention on the real-world tales of Americans who continue to look for work and consider the unemployment benefits essential to their basic needs, including food, heat and gasoline.
The president was introduced by Connecticut’s Katherine Hackett, who explained that she had implored Obama in a December letter to advocate in Congress for people in her situation -- a single woman who lost her job in the health care field and is struggling to find another, and has two sons serving in the military. A slender, middle-aged woman, Hackett said she heats her home to just 58 degrees (and wears winter clothing indoors as a result) because she can’t afford heating oil, and has slashed her food spending so much that she’s lost weight.
Her message to Congress was simple: “I challenge any lawmaker to live without an income.”
Obama cast the ongoing debate in Congress as a values choice between lending a hand or blocking essential help to proud people who, though down on their luck, are striving daily to reverse their fortunes. Unemployment insurance is only paid to those actively looking for work.
“Katherine, in the letter that she wrote to me, said, 'Do folks really think that cutting this benefit will make someone hire me? I mean, that's not how employers are thinking,’” he added.
“Letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong,” Obama said. “Congress should make things right.”