President Obama on Tuesday called on Republicans to extend unemployment benefits to 1.3 million Americans for three months, looking to build momentum for the federal aid after the measure cleared a major hurdle in the Senate.
“We've got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay, and we need the House of Representatives to be able to vote for this as well,” Obama said from the East Room of the White House, surrounded by Americans who lost unemployment benefits in late December.
Earlier Tuesday, Democrats and a handful of Republican senators cleared the 60-vote threshold needed to cut off debate and move ahead on a vote on the $6.5 billion package.
Still, the White House isn’t celebrating yet.
House Republicans are unlikely to support the extension of jobless benefits if lawmakers can't find a way to pay for the proposal.
“One month ago, I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in response to the Senate's action.
“To date, the president has offered no such plan,” Boehner added. “If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it.”
The Obama administration estimates that failing to extend unemployment beyond 26 weeks would cost the economy roughly 240,000 jobs. But some Republicans counter that extending such benefits would keep Americans perpetually unemployed and limit their motivation to return to the workforce.
Obama scoffed at that GOP argument Tuesday, trying to portray Republican leaders as out of touch with Americans struggling to find work.
“That really sells the American people short,” Obama said. “I can’t name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job.
“The long-term unemployed are not lazy,” Obama added. “They are not lacking in motivation.”
As for finding cost offsets to the $6.5 billion package, the president noted that lawmakers had previously extended such benefits during better economic times with “no strings attached.”
Unemployment benefits expired for 1.3 million Americans in late December when lawmakers failed to include the provision in a broader budget compromise.
Obama's remarks Tuesday provided a preview of his State of the Union address in late January, when he will trumpet combating income inequality as the primary challenge of his second term.
“These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members,” Obama said of those looking for jobless benefits.
“When times get tough,” Obama added, “we are not a people who say, ‘You’re on your own.’”