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The Campaign For Jobless Benefits Begins In Congress

The Campaign For Jobless Benefits Begins In Congress

The Senate gets back to work Monday after a two-week holiday break. Just as Majority Leader Harry Reid promised, the first piece of legislation getting a vote will be a three-month extension of the long-term unemployment benefits that ran out a week ago for 1.3 million jobless Americans.

Though the Senate unemployment measure is bipartisan, it's not clear it has enough votes to beat a GOP filibuster. Regardless, Democrats are banging the drum on the issue as a midterm election year begins.

In a conference call with reporters organized by the White House, Labor Secretary Tom Perez pointed out that when former President Bush first signed long-term unemployment benefits in 2008, the average unemployed worker went jobless for 17 weeks. The current out-of-work average, he said, is 36 weeks — 10 weeks longer than state unemployment benefits last.

"It would be unprecedented, given the current rate of long-term unemployment, for Congress to fail to act to extend these benefits," Perez said. "That is why we are so heartened by the bipartisan bill that Sens. Heller and Reed have introduced."

Betsy Stevenson, a member of the president's Council on Economic Advisers, warned that failure to extend benefits could mean the loss of another 250,000 jobs this year, precisely when the overall economy is starting to pick up steam.

"It seems like a silly time for Congress to fail to do something that's both essential for the people who need it and helpful for our economy," Stevenson said.

Prospects for reviving the jobless benefits are uncertain at best in the Democratic-led Senate. The legislation faces even bigger hurdles in the GOP-controlled House. Before he left Washington three weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner was asked whether he'd let a jobless benefits bill come to the floor.

Boehner did not say no — after all, extending those benefits enjoys wide public support, even among Republicans. But he did attach some significant strings.

"When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said that we would clearly consider it, as long as it's paid for and as long as there are other efforts that'll help get our economy moving once again," Boehner said.

There are no offsets in the Senate bill to pay for the $6.2 billion cost of the three-month extension, and House Democrats say they would not vote for any GOP attempt to pay for the bill by tapping other workers' benefits. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., is counting on Republicans ultimately caving to popular pressure.

"Once it's debated and the stories of people become more and more known, I think that's going to move the mountain here," Levin said.

President Obama kicks off that effort on Tuesday with a White House rally featuring long-term unemployed workers.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.