WASHINGTON -- A small group of moderate House Republicans have urged their leaders to rescue the federal unemployment benefits scheduled to run out for more than a million long-term jobless Americans at the end of the year.
Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) led the effort, with assists from Reps. Joe Heck (Nev.), David Joyce (Ohio), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Peter King (N.Y.), and Jon Runyan (N.J.). They sent a letter Tuesday to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
"As the end of the year nears and Congress works to address issues important to many American families," the letter says, "we respectfully request that the House consider a temporary extension of emergency unemployment insurance to protect an essential safeguard that has aided Americans who have endured though a weak economy."
A Boehner spokesman had no immediate comment on the letter.
The benefits were omitted from a budget deal recently struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), sharply increasing the likelihood that they would not be renewed before the new year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday conceded that he and his party would have to pick up the fight in 2014. One Senate Democratic aide told The Huffington Post that renewing unemployment insurance would be a part of a broader economic push the party would make focusing predominantly on inequality and opportunity.
As the spotlight seemingly shifted to the next calendar year, however, House Democrats made a last-ditch effort to find an alternate path forward. House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) pushed for Congress to pass a three-month extension of the benefits alongside a routine measure to prevent cuts in doctors' Medicare compensation. Republicans support attaching the latter and not the former to the Murray-Ryan framework. But since GOP leadership in the House likely needs Democratic votes to pass any package through the chamber, Van Hollen and Levin's gambit could put them in a political bind if, in fact, House Democrats make this a red-line issue.
Federal unemployment insurance, which is available to workers who use up six months of state benefits, will expire on Dec. 28, stranding the 1.3 million Americans currently receiving the compensation.
More than 4 million workers had been unemployed at least six months as of November, according to the Labor Department. A shrinking share of the long-term jobless receive compensation, partly because Congress has already curtailed the duration of benefits. If lawmakers take no action, the maximum duration of jobless benefits will revert to 26 weeks.
Having a few House Republicans supportive of extending the benefits certainly helps the prospects of passing legislation. But not by much. Boehner on Wednesday said he would look at any proposal put forward by the Obama administration. But in order to win over his support, the proposal had to be offset with cuts elsewhere and had to "boost jobs," as one of his aides explained.
Democrats, meanwhile, were not overly impressed by the seven Republican signatures on the letter.
"What about the other 224? Democrats are going to be pushing this relentlessly this week," said Josh Drobnyk, a spokesman for the Democrats of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees unemployment insurance. "Not extending this would have hugely harmful effect -- in a very measurable way -- in districts throughout the country."
House Democrats also sent a letter to Republican leaders on Wednesday begging them not to leave town before dealing with the benefits.
"This would not only be a devastating blow for millions of Americans who are already struggling, but it would also hurt our economy," the letter said. "This cutoff will affect over 3 million Americans over the next six months, and thereby also negatively impact our economic growth."
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that keeping the benefits for another full year would cost $26 billion and boost economic growth by about 200,000 jobs.