WASHINGTON -- President Obama took a question on the campaign trail Monday from a little girl who asked if her father, an unemployed construction worker, would find a job before his unemployment insurance runs out.
The president responded that he hoped the girl's father would find work, but that if he doesn't, he hoped the unemployment benefits would still be there.
"Now, we tried to extend unemployment insurance beyond normal right after the recession hit," Obama said. "We were able to extend it again in 2010. It's been harder now to get Congress to extend it further."
"And so we'll continue to negotiate with Congress to make sure that unemployment is there," the president added. "But the most important thing I want to do is make sure your dad can get a job."
Two million people will be cut off from benefits when federal unemployment insurance expires the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group based in New York. But Congress is not ready to worry about it. The Huffington Post asked lawmakers on Tuesday if preserving unemployment insurance in 2013 is on their radar.
"No, it's not," Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of Senate committee that oversees unemployment insurance, said as he boarded a Senate elevator. "Not yet."
"I have not heard any discussion about what we can do there," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has made a lot of noise lately about safety net programs like food stamps and Social Security Disability Insurance. "I have not given thought to what precisely we ought to do, whether it's phasing down or what. The fundamental thing is we need to create more jobs … and everybody has got to be out hustling to find work. There’s just no other way to make America productive."
On the House side, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has not hinted at what might happen. The highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), told The Hill earlier this month that it all depends on the November elections, which could change the balance of power in Congress and the White House.
"We've had a struggle with the Republicans. They continue to think that it's a disincentive" for people to look for jobs, Levin said. "So we're going to continue the battle; whether we win it or not will depend more on Nov. 6."
Economists expect the national unemployment rate to remain above 8 percent for the rest of the year; Congress routinely gives the jobless workers extended benefits during recessions and has never dropped benefits when the unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent.
Federal benefits kick in for workers who exhaust the standard 26 weeks of state benefits without finding work. Late in 2009, Congress extended the combined duration of state and federal benefits to 99 weeks. Subsequent reauthorizations all happened either at the last minute or after benefits lapsed for weeks. In February, Republicans and Democrats struck a deal to gradually wind down the maximum duration to 73 weeks by the end of this year.
In addition to the 2 million people whose federal benefits will abruptly stop on Dec. 29, another 900,000 will be left hanging after they run out of state benefits during the first three months of 2013, according to the National Employment Law Project. More than 5 million people had been out of work for six months or longer in June, according to the Labor Department, and the average unemployed person had been out of work for 39.9 weeks.
But in Congress, unemployment insurance is overshadowed by other financial matters, including the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, the end of a 2 percentage point reduction in the Social Security payroll tax, and scheduled cuts to defense spending that Republicans are desperate to avoid. Lawmakers call it the "fiscal cliff."
"It's unfortunate," said NELP senior staff attorney George Wentworth. "You're talking about 2 to 3 million Americans for whom losing unemployment insurance is their fiscal cliff."
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly reported the child who questioned Obama was a boy.