WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama took aim at Republican lawmakers Monday, accusing them of holding the public hostage to Washington politics by blocking extended unemployment benefits for millions of out of work Americans.
"It's time to do what's right, not for the next election, but for the middle class," Obama said in a presidential jawboning statement in the Rose Garden Monday morning.
Lawmakers have battled for weeks over legislation extending unemployment benefits to workers who have been out of a job for long stretches of time. The last such extension expired at the end of May, leaving some 2.5 million people without benefits, with hundreds of thousands more losing benefits each week.
The Senate is set to take up the measure again Tuesday, immediately after the swearing in of a replacement for the late Sen. Robert Byrd. Filling that seat will give Democrats the 60 votes they need to block a Republican filibuster.
Obama's argument has become a familiar one, as Democrats try to use the Republican blockade of unemployment benefits as a wedge issue heading into the November midterm elections.
On Monday, he sought to cast his Republican opponents as hypocritical for having voted for extensions of unemployment benefits when his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, was in the White House, but not now. He accused Republican leaders of subscribing to what he called a misguided notion that providing unemployment aid to people lowers their incentive to look hard for a job.
"That attitude, I think, reflects a lack of faith in the American people," Obama said.
The president said that the out-of-work people he hears from are "not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work. Just right now, they can't find a job."
"These are honest, decent, hardworking folks who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own."
The $34 billion needed to extend benefits would be borrowed, adding to the nation's mounting debt. Republicans have tapped into the public's anger and concern over the national debt, saying they would support extending jobless benefits only if the bill was paid for.
"Everyone agrees on extending the additional unemployment insurance, but the Democrat way is to insist we add it to the national debt at the same time, while blocking Republican efforts to pass the same extension without the debt," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said extending unemployment benefits amounts to "emergency spending" that justifies higher deficits. Under GOP presidents, he told reporters, most Republican lawmakers agreed, but now they are insisting that extended benefits be paid for.
If the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent three months from now, Gibbs said, benefits may need to be extended again.