WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that failing to rescue federal benefits for the long-term jobless would be practically "immoral," after an extension of the benefits was excluded from the bipartisan budget agreement announced earlier this week.
"It's interesting to note that [Republicans] rejected unemployment insurance," Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill. "This is so unconscionable, it's practically at the level of immoral to do to people who work hard, play by the rules, lose their job through no fault of their own are not able to continue getting unemployment insurance checks."
The federally-funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is scheduled to expire on Dec. 28, resulting in an abrupt end to assistance for 1.3 million Americans who've been out of work six months or longer. Democrats had said they would like to see those benefits attached to the broader budget deal being negotiated between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), but the benefits were left out.
Pelosi has not pushed her members hard on the budget deal, but said Thursday Democrats would probably back it, even without the jobless aid, when it hits the floor for a vote in the afternoon.
"We aren't giving up on it," Pelosi said of unemployment insurance. "I said it was an immorality that it wasn't in the legislation. The president is making overtures to Congress to do this."
But in spite of the immorality, the Democratic leader of the House suggested it was more important to move ahead on the budget deal than to reject it because it avoids another government shutdown standoff and eases the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.
"This is an intolerable situation to us, but we also want to end sequestration. So you have two noes. Two noes don't make a yes. So we want to get one yes, and then fight to get the second yes," Pelosi said.
"We're unhappy, we're really unhappy about it, but not enough to say therefore, we're going to make matters worse by not having an agreement. We're just going to point out differences to the American people," she added, pledging to keep making the case for unemployment benefits.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced via Twitter Wednesday that he would "push for an extension when Senate convenes after the New Year." Several times in the past few years Congress has reauthorized the jobless aid after it has lapsed, sending lump-sum checks to make up for the weeks workers had missed.
Reid added on Thursday that Senate procedures would make it tough to add the measure to the budget bill, but he vowed to extend benefits through other channels.
"I'm about as disappointed as anyone could be because Nevada leads the nation in unemployment. This is something we're focused on like a laser," Reid said. "I'm confident we're going to be able to extend unemployment benefits."
He also suggested that Republicans could pay a political price if they obstruct such an extension.
"The politics of this is pretty strong," Reid said. "People that are unemployed for a long period of time are Democrats and they're Republicans."
The federal benefits kick in for workers laid off through no fault of their own once they have used up their state-funded unemployment insurance, which in most states lasts 26 weeks. During every recession since World War II Congress has given the jobless extra weeks of compensation through temporary federal programs. In 2009, lawmakers pushed the duration of federal benefits to an unprecedented 73 weeks, then began shortening the extra help in 2012.
The number of long-term jobless Americans -- officially defined as people out of work six months or longer -- has declined to 4.1 million from its peak of 6.7 million in 2010. The long-term unemployed still comprise a larger proportion of the overall unemployed population than in any previous recession.
Keeping the benefits through next year would cost $26 billion, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent of expected federal spending.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he's open to extending the benefits, but only if there is a corresponding cut elsewhere in the budget. Democrats have talked about counting savings from separate legislation as a possible way to pay for the benefits.
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