WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering steps to ease the burdens of laid-off workers, including possible extensions of unemployment and health benefits, officials said Saturday.
The administration has stopped short of calling for a second economic stimulus package to augment the $787 billion measure approved this year. But with the jobless rate continuing to climb, President Barack Obama said Saturday he is exploring "additional options to promote job creation."
Administration aides said possibilities include:
_extending enhanced unemployment-insurance benefits beyond Dec. 31, when they are set to expire.
_extending a tax credit for laid-off workers who buy health insurance through the COBRA program. That program allows workers to keep their company's health insurance plan for 18 months after they leave their job, if they pay the premiums.
_extending a tax credit for first-time home buyers. This credit also is set to expire soon.
The administration has discussed these possibilities with congressional leaders, officials said, but no decisions have been made.
White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers expressed interest in these ideas in an online interview with the Atlantic magazine. "I don't know what the term 'second stimulus package' exactly means," Summers said. "We certainly need to continue to support people who are in need, whether it's unemployment insurance, or a COBRA program that for the first time provides that people who are laid off get supported in being able to maintain their health insurance."
In his weekly radio and Internet video address Saturday, Obama said his proposed health care overhaul would create jobs by making small business startups more affordable. If aspiring entrepreneurs believe they can stay insured while switching jobs, he said, they will start new businesses and hire workers.
"I hear about it from small business owners who want to grow their companies and hire more people, but they cant, because they can barely afford to insure the employees they have," Obama said. "One small business owner wrote to me that health care costs are and I quote 'stifling my business growth.' He said that the money he wanted to use for research and development, and to expand his operations, has instead been 'thrown into the pocket of healthcare insurance carriers.' "
Dismissive Republicans blamed the continuing job losses on Democratic policies and said the president's health proposals won't help.
The unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in September, the highest since June 1983, as employers cut far more jobs than expected. The government reported Friday that the economy lost a net total of 263,000 jobs last month, from a downwardly revised 201,000 in August. All told, 15.1 million people are now out of work, the Labor Department said, and 7.2 million jobs have been eliminated since the recession began in December 2007.
Obama said he has met people "who've got a good idea and the expertise and determination to build it into a thriving business. But many can't take that leap because they can't afford to lose the health insurance they have at their current job."
Small businesses create many of the nation's jobs, Obama said, and some have the potential to become big companies.
Obama praised the Senate Finance Committee for crafting a health care bill that includes many of his priorities. Small businesses could buy health insurance through an exchange, he said, "where they can compare the price, quality and services of a wide variety of plans."
The government would subsidize health insurance for many businesses and individuals, the president said.
In the weekly Republican address, Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan said the original Obama-backed economic stimulus package fell far short of its goals. She criticized a House-passed energy bill that would set limits and costs on greenhouse gas emissions. The plan, which the Senate has not taken up, "would increase electricity bills, raise gasoline prices and ship more American jobs overseas," Miller said.
She called for deeper tax cuts for small businesses so the economy can get back on track.
"Washington Democrats' job-killing agenda makes me think they're living on a different planet from the families living in America's suffering heartland," Miller said.
On the Net:
Obama's address: http://www.whitehouse.gov
Republican address: http://www.youtube.com/RepublicanConference