President Obama stepped up his criticism of Republicans on economic issues Monday, blasting them for delaying Senate action on extending unemployment insurance and other measures for bolstering the sagging economic recovery. Senate Republicans say they have no problem with extending unemployment insurance again, but are insisting that the cost be offset with cuts in other areas – a demand Obama and Democratic leaders say is unprecedented and little more than political grandstanding.
With a critical Senate vote scheduled for tomorrow, Obama used a Rose Garden press event to attack Republicans for using parliamentary tactics three times to block action on emergency unemployment insurance that would assist millions of Americans who have exhausted their state and federal unemployment insurance benefits. Flanked by three unemployed people who would benefit from the additional benefits, Obama said “It’s time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics.”
As a foretaste of the administration’s efforts to counter Republican assaults on Obama’s economic recovery policies and massive deficit spending, the president said: “I have to say after years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans . . . who really need help. “
Passage of emergency unemployment insurance in the midst of economic tough times was once pretty much a given, as both parties saw the need to look out for unemployed constituents. But as Republicans and many moderate Democrats voice growing concern about the $1.3 trillion budget deficit and voter discontent with massive spending – even for vital anti-recessionary measures -- emergency unemployment benefits have become a political football in a tough mid-term election campaign. Lawmakers have battled for weeks over extending unemployment benefits to workers who have been out of a job for long stretches of time. The last extension ran out at the end of May; since then, about 2.5 million people have lost benefits.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her lieutenants pushed through a bill that would extend benefits through November. But with the recent death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Senate Democrats have lacked the 60 votes they need to overcome a GOP filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to take up the measure again on Tuesday — when Byrd's successor, Carte Goodwin, the former chief counsel for Gov. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is expected to be sworn in.
Obama has said that lawmakers' obligation to extend benefits is both moral and practical, citing some economists who believe extending unemployment insurance is one of the most cost-effective ways to jump-start the economy because it puts money in the pockets of people who are likely to spend it quickly. He is also pushing for approval of a package of tax cuts and expanded lending to assist small businesses and encourage them to expand their workforce. Democrats are hoping to schedule a vote on the small business bill before Congress breaks for its August recess. Republican leaders say they're happy to vote, as long as they get a chance to change the bill to their liking.
“Times are hard right now, we are moving in the right direction,” Obama said this morning. “I know it’s getting close to an election. But there are times where you put elections aside. This is one of those times. That’s what I hope members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will do tomorrow.”
During a appearance Sunday on CNN, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, held fast to the GOP demand that the extended unemployment benefits be paid for – playing to conservatives worried about spending despite the risk of angering those desperately waiting for another unemployment check.
“Somewhere in the course of spending a trillion dollars, we ought to be able to find enough to pay for a program for the unemployed,” McConnell said. “If we can’t pay for a program like extension of unemployment insurance that virtually every member of the Senate — I think, in fact, every member of the Senate – wants to extend, then what are we going to pay for? When do we start?”