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White House pressures Congress on long-term jobless benefits

The White House is ratcheting up the pressure on Congress to restore emergency long-term unemployment benefits when they return to Washington next week.

President Obama will be joined by people who have lost those benefits, which expired at the end of last year, when he delivers remarks on the issue at the White House on Tuesday. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told reporters on Friday that the benefits are a critical lifeline for people still looking for work. He said it would be ”unprecedented,” given the rate of long-term unemployment, for Congress to fail to extend the benefits.

Already, 1.3 million people have lost benefits after Congress let them expire on Dec. 28. The federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program was expanded in 2008 to provide extra income to the long-term unemployed who exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. For much of the recession, the government not only offered extended benefits beyond those 26 weeks, but also introduced the EUC program to offer up to 99 weeks of combined state and federal assistance in many states. If Congress doesn’t restore the program, an additional 1.9 million Americans will lose benefits in the first six months of 2014.

Extending the program for another year would cost about $25 billion, and Democrats say it should be renewed with or without a plan to pay for it. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, has noted that the United States still has about 1.5 million fewer jobs than when the recession began in December 2007. Republicans, however, insist the program was supposed to be temporary and will add to the deficit unless the costs are offset.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is expected to hold a procedural vote as early as Monday night on legislation to restore the benefits -- unpaid for -- for three months. The Senate could then vote on the bill, sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., later in the week and send the bill to the Republican-led House.

Reid told the Las Vegas Sun last month that once the three-month extension is passed, he wants to ease the threshold for those seeking assistance from the program. As the program last existed, unemployed workers were only eligible for the maximum duration of 73 weeks of federal benefits if their state had an unemployment rate of at least 9 percent. Yet as of November, only Nevada and Rhode Island had such high unemployment rates.

“Hopefully, we can bring that number down,” Reid told the newspaper.

However, before he can pursue that policy change, the three-month extension will have to get through the House, where leaders have indicated they don’t support restoring the benefits without offsets.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., sent a memo to House Republicans on Friday with January’s legislative agenda. Nowhere did it mention unemployment benefits. Oversight of Obamacare topped the agenda, followed by 2014 budget appropriations, Iran policy, the farm bill and a water resources bill, and legislation to reform the EPA’s regulatory process.

“We must, as always, remain focused on our conservative policies that can help grow the economy, lessen the burden of government, and provide opportunity for America's hard working taxpayers,” Cantor said in the memo. “Our conservative policies have proven to provide the solutions to the challenges families are facing including increasing economic security and creating more opportunity for advancement.”